October 27, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Ethan Anderson’s career night lifts USC to win over UCLA

A few feet away and 11 months after the buzzer-beater that broke the Bruins’ back, Ethan Anderson, with his own ailing back, caught a chaotic pass at the top of the key with the shot clock running down and no time left to think. So the sophomore point guard let it fly.

Anderson, at first, seemed slated for only a bit part in USC’s Saturday night meeting with UCLA, the first on-court edition of the crosstown rivalry since Jonah Mathews sunk his stunning shot to best the Bruins last March. UCLA was down its two best big men, leaving USC’s 7-foot star freshman, Evan Mobley, with perhaps the softest matchup of his college career thus far.

But as Anderson’s desperation heave swished from long distance early in the second half, as he knocked down a career high in three-pointers and USC finally put the pedal to the floor, the Trojans wouldn’t need a buzzer-beater or a superstar big man to beat the Bruins 66-48.

The backup point guard, as it turns out, was quite enough on his own. Now, thanks to Anderson, the Trojans find themselves tied with UCLA atop the conference, with 10 wins in their last 11 games.

For weeks, after the soreness in his back subsided, Anderson struggled to find his rhythm. Just twice this season had he scored in double figures. In USC’s last outing against Stanford, he didn’t score a single point.

On Saturday, he pored in a career-high 19 points as he found his confidence in a hurry. While Mobley had a quiet night, finishing with only nine points, Anderson knocked down five of nine from three-point range, another career high. And his defense left UCLA floor general Tyger Campbell struggling to initiate the Bruins’ offense.

UCLA was led by 13 points from Johnny Juzang, but the rest of its offense couldn’t do nearly enough to keep up with its crosstown rival. The Bruins shot worse than 34% from the field and found themselves unable to match the Trojans on either end.

UCLA’s Tyger Campbell shoots as USC’s Max Agbonkpolo defends during the first half.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The difficult circumstances didn’t help matters for UCLA. One Bruins big man, Cody Riley, sat on the bench with his right foot in a walking boot. The other, Jalen Hill, wasn’t even in the building because of personal reasons.

That left a little-used reserve averaging less than five minutes per game (Kenneth Nwuba) and a four-star early enrollee who was meant to spend the entire season in prep school (Mac Etienne) as the last line of defense against a superstar freshman destined for the top of the NBA draft.

But that imbalance, however epic, wasn’t immediately clear on the court. After scoring USC’s first points on a soft hook underneath, Mobley didn’t score again from the field until past the midway point, as a smaller-than-usual UCLA defense packed the paint.

It was the best Bruins coach Mick Cronin could do to keep USC from repeatedly feeding its 7-footer in the post. He tried a zone defense to counteract that disparity down low, mobbing Mobley whenever he caught an entry pass.

Highlights from USC’s 66-48 victory over UCLA on Saturday night at Galen Center.

For a while Saturday, that strategy worked. USC struggled to take advantage of the open space around the arc, hitting just two of its first 13 from deep. Mobley couldn’t find much room to operate underneath either.

But once USC’s shots started falling from deep, there was little UCLA could do to keep the Trojans on the ropes.

USC and its top-notch defense had no such trouble neutralizing a UCLA offense missing its entire frontcourt. Over two different stretches during the first half, the Bruins failed to score for more than five minutes.

The second of those scoreless stretches just happened to be when USC caught fire from deep. The Trojans hit three in a row from three-point range to close out the half. Then Anderson picked up right where they left off in the second.

It was a career night for the sophomore point guard, who, weeks after his return from a back injury, was still finding his footing. He found more than that Saturday.