LOS ANGELES (AP) — Classes at USC concluded a couple of weeks ago but it’s evident the Trojan men’s basketball team has a few things to learn before beginning Pac-12 play on Jan. 5 at UCLA.
The Trojans were taller, quicker, more experienced, and appeared to be the better all-around team when they took the court against Howard University for Sunday’s non-conference matinee at the Galen Center.
But the Trojans found themselves clinging to a three-point lead at halftime before pulling away in the second to beat the Bison, 82-60.
Byron Wesley led the Trojans with 20 points, scoring 14 of them in the second half.
“The slow starts are something we need to work on,” Wesley said. “It was really good how we responded in the second half.”
USC (9-4) posted its first nine-win season over nonconference opponents since 2011, after getting an additional 18 points from J.T. Terrell and 15 from Nikola Jovanovic.
The win should have been easier for the Trojans, who despite holding a 2-to-1 edge in rebounds in the first half, were unable to shake themselves loose from a gutsy Howard team.
The Trojans had 22 rebounds in the first half, to Howard’s 11 but they also had 12 turnovers, and converted just five of 14 free throws.
“The turnovers and the missed free throws in the first half, that happens,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “We had to find a way to win.
“You have to credit the other team. They play hard and well.”
USC led, 29-26, at halftime but Julian Jacobs ignited a strong second half by scoring the Trojans’ first five points. Wesley took Jacobs’ lead and rattled off two 3-pointers and a short jumper to contribute to a 13-4 run that gave the Trojans a 42-30 lead.
Byron also led the Trojans on a 21-4 run later in the second half that led to a 63-42 margin and put the game out of reach.
“It hurts real bad just to know that you were so close,” said Howard junior guard Prince Okoroh. “We were fighting real hard but a few mistakes and the game was just right out of our reach.
“One mistake became two and we never really rebounded from it. We’ve got to get better of getting rid of the old mistakes and getting ready for the next play.”
The Trojans could have made things easier on themselves by playing a little sharper in the first half. USC shot 50 percent from the floor in the opening frame but took eight fewer shots.
Howard, on the other hand, entered the game shooting 38 percent from the floor this season. The Bison shot 40 percent in the first half, and knocked down one more field goal than USC.
Howard (3-13) slipped to 0-11 on the road this season, and has now lost 13 of its last 14 games.
Howard was also without the services of freshman guard and leading scorer James Daniel (19.8 points per game). Daniel missed his fourth consecutive game with a toe injury.
Even without Daniel, the Bison was not completely helpless. Okoroh took a 15.8 scoring average into the contest. Additionally, Keon Hill, Marcel Boyd and James Miller led the Bison in scoring in at least one game earlier in the season. But with a Bison squad that features nine freshman, things won’t always go smoothly.
Okoroh and Solomon Mangham led the Bison with 11 points apiece.
“It’s been the same thing all year,” Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry said. “We played Houston, Pittsburgh, Harvard and we were within a few points in the first half. But then fatigue and freshmen take over. We just make freshman mistakes. Fatigue takes over. Foul trouble takes over. So one of those three F’s take over.”
According to Okoroh, the biggest mistake in the Bison’s latest setback came from not making the right adjustments.
“We should have realized that they were attacking the rim more, so we should have taken away the drive more,” he said. “We gave up too many layups in the second half. Coach told us not to give up layups coming into the game.”
The Trojans’ biggest lead of the first half came at the 7:27 mark, when Wesley’s basket gave USC a 24-15 lead.
USC had an eight-point advantage with 3:31 left in the first half when Omar Oraby sank one of two free throws.
Howard closed out the half by scoring the final five points. Three came on a long-range basket by Hill, and the other two were the result of a short jumper by Okoroh.
The Trojans could have added to their lead but Roschon Prince and Wesley took turns missing two free throws each.
“That was a good win,” Enfield added. “We played well in the second half after not playing well in the first half. Our team is getting better.”
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