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Elijah Stewart's Breakout Game Breaks USC's Long Losing Streak

Paolo Uggetti |
February 14, 2015 | 5:22 p.m. PST

Associate Sports Editor

Julian Jacobs rises up for a dunk. (@Pac12/Twitter)
Julian Jacobs rises up for a dunk. (@Pac12/Twitter)

Saturday afternoon basketball delivered a treat to those who attended the Galen Center, as USC's (10-15, 2-11) 23 turnovers were rendered meaningless by a 68-55 victory over the Oregon St. Beavers (16-9, 7-6).

It was a turnover-themed Valentine's Day between the two squads who seemed bent on outdoing each other early on, seeing who could throw the ball away the most. And for most of the game, the Trojans won that self-defeatist battle. 

But thanks to the athletic guard duo of Julian Jacobs and Elijah Stewart, the Trojans were finally able to break their 9-game losing streak in one of their best performances of this disappointing season. 

"The guys are excited about how they played, especially in the second half," head coach Andy Enfield said of his squad afterward. "It's been a while since we won a Pac-12 game."

Though both offenses made it a habit to keep turning the ball over, the first-half difference came in how Oregon St. forced most of those turnovers through steals. 

Having averaged 7.5 swipes in their previous games, the Beavers amped up their thievery, especially in the first half, and finished with 13 steals, giving them the lead throughout the first half.  

The Trojans reached double-digit turnovers in half of the first half alone, but Oregon had eight of their own, keeping the score much closer than it should have been. 

Without Jordan McLaughlin, who was out with a shoulder injury, the Trojans had to look elsewhere for leadership and scoring. Thankfully, they found exactly that and more in Jacobs and Stewart. 

Not to be forgotten was guard Katin Reinhardt, whose 16 points off the bench were an essential contribution to the much-needed victory. 

"We felt like today was a must-win," said Jacobs. "The crowd was so enthused today." 

"It felt good to award the crowd with the victory," Stewart echoed. 

The always-agressive Jacobs did his best Jordan McLaughlin impression by spreading the ball around and attacking the rim throughout the game, and though at first he seemed to be forcing things, he finished with 14 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

Halftime scores were insanely low at 28-26 in favor of the Beavers, and USC's total might have been lower had it not been for the exclamation point that Jacobs ended the half with. 

And with under 10 seconds left, the Beavers' coughed up the ball once again when Strahinja Gavrilovic cut a passing lane, tipping the ball to Reinhardt who gave it to Jacobs for a rare buzzer-beating slam dunk. 

"It was a huge momentum shift," Jacobs said of the play. "Going into the lockerroom, we were really excited because we had been in a rut."

The energy produced by that dunk alone seemed to translate over to half number two for the Trojans, as they began it by outscoring the Beavers 12-4. 

The turnovers and missed shots continued for both teams, but some aggressive drives to the hoop allowed the Trojans to take their first lead since the early first half. 

READ MORE: USC Falls To Oregon And The Losing Streak Continues

The Trojans were able to stay and take a lead in the ballgame in large part due to freshman guard Elijah Stewart and his career night from behind the arc. On offense, Stewart was feeling it, shooting 50% from three-point land. 

"I'm happy for our young players, like Elijah Stewart," Enfield admitted. "It showed he can compete at this level." 

His work on the defensive end, however, was equally important, if not more. 

"I always make defense a priority," Stewart said. "Every time I play, I look forward to making an impact." 

Both Stewart and Jacobs played huge parts in the defensive turn up by chasing down blocks and performing increasingly well on the perimeter respectively. Through a press installed by Enfield, the Trojans began to force turnovers, cut passing lanes and increase their lead, subsequently taking control of the game.  

Despite the Beavers' 12 steals, USC's seven steals seemed to come at more opportune times, feeding both the team's energy and their points off turnovers. 

In arguably their best performance of the season, Stewart and Jacobs were far and away the catalysts. 

"Our other guards played well today," touted Enfield. "They had too many turnovers, but they shared the ball." 

Through both energy and play, the duo seemed to feed off each other and vehemently took it upon themselves to not let this one get away. 

That had been the constant theme during the long losing streak. The close games seemed to always go against them, but that would not be the case on Saturday night.

Not on Jacobs' watch and certainly not on Stewart's watch. 

Stewart, in particular, had not started in over a month and took this opportunity to finally hit three-pointers against one of the best teams in the conference at defending the three-point shot.

"Whenever you make that first shot, it always feels good," he said despite the shooting slump he had been in. "You just have to keep shooting."

Furthermore, the Beavers had been the best Pac-12 team at keeping opponents to low shooting percentages all over the floor. But the Trojans cared not for those statistics and through a 24-5 fast break points advantage, they increased both the pace and volume of their successful scoring, which had been a problem throughout their losing streak. 

"Usually blocked shots lead to transition [scoring]," Jacobs said. "That was huge for us."

So was this win, especially for Enfield who can now add the Beavers to the Pac-12 shortlist of teams he has beaten, alongside Cal and Wahsington St. 

With USC traveling to the Arizona schools next week, the Trojans took this chance and literally ran with it, capitalizing on a game they mostly controlled, and most importantly, finishing all the way through.

Now that the ill-fated streak is no more, and with only a handful of games left in Pac-12 play, that will be the theme going forward. Finishing. 

"We need to keep pushing these young players," said Enfield. "Our players need to prove to themselves they can compete at this level."

If Saturday's game was any indication, this is the type of basketball USC wants to play, and this is the type of basketball USC can play. 

"We'd like to play like this, with more energy," Enfield admitted. "Our defense has really improved over the past month. If we hold teams under 40% shooting, we have a chance to win." 

The talent and drive are clearly there, and in Saturday's game we saw that the execution is all that remains. 

Reach Associate Sports Editor Paolo Uggetti here, or follow him on Twitter at @PaoloUggetti.



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