Basketball: USC responds in win at Cal after unexpected COVID postponement

Andy Enfield was still frustrated Saturday evening — he couldn’t hide it, or simply didn’t care to, as he recounted the events that led to his USC basketball team having to postpone or cancel its game at Stanford on Thursday due to one positive COVID-19 test.

“Honestly, I did not think, and I don’t think anyone thought that test was positive,” he said. “We thought it was false positive all along because we had had two PCR tests — one before we left on Monday, we had another PCR test on Wednesday, we had four antigen tests, and you don’t get COVID just by sitting in a hotel room or on a bus. Especially when everybody else gets tested. We haven’t done anything as a team or as individuals. So it was very disappointing to have a false positive and cost us a game on the road. We were very frustrated.”

He was also seemingly frustrated that Stanford wouldn’t take USC’s offer to reschedule the game for Friday, Sunday or preferably Monday while the Trojans were still up in Northern California.

“But that’s out of my control,” he said.

So ultimately all that was left to affect was USC’s return to action Saturday at Cal, and the Trojans were in jeopardy of incurring yet more frustration after squandering an early 11-point lead and trailing at times in the second half. Instead, they hit the big shots and make the key stops down the stretch to salvage a positive ending to the week, closing out a much-needed 76-68 win over the Golden Bears in Berkeley.

“I thought our players really responded well tonight after this long five days in a hotel, three different hotels for that matter in a couple different states. The way they battled tonight is a credit to our players — they came ready to play basketball,” Enfield said.

Freshman Evan Mobley led the Trojans (12-3, 6-2 Pac-12) with a season-high 25 points (including 12 of 15 from the free throw line) and 8 rebounds, while veteran guard Tahj Eaddy added 18 points, sophomore point guard Ethan Anderson chipped in 11 off the bench and sophomore forward Isaiah Mobley had 7 points and 10 rebounds.

It was a much better offensive performance than USC had in its 58-56 loss at Oregon State on Tuesday, but it wasn’t all pretty.

The Trojans had started strong and gone up by as many as 11 points on a couple of occasions in the first half, before Cal (7-10, 2-8) surged into the lead late in the half, setting up a mostly back-and-forth, tightly-contested game the rest of the way.

The Bears had leading scorer Matt Bradley (11 points) back in action for the first time since Jan. 2 after he missed time with an ankle injury, while guard Joel Brown added a season-high 15 points off the bench and forward Grant Anticevich chipped in 15 points.

Neither team managed to push the lead any wider than 2 points for the first nearly 10 minutes of the second half and not beyond 4 points either way until Evan Mobley made a pair free throws with 4:17 remaining to give USC a 66-61 advantage.

Bradley quickly answered with a jumper, the younger Mobley went back to the line for 2 more free throws, and Cal’s Ryan Betley hit a 3-pointer to cut the Trojans’ lead to 68-66 entering the final 3 minutes.

Isaiah Mobley later hit a short turnaround bank shot in the paint, and after misses on both ends USC got three chances in a pivotal late possession. Anderson was blocked on a layup, but USC retained possession as the ball went out of bounds off Cal. Evan Mobley then got back to the line but uncharacteristically missed both foul shots, only to have Max Agbonkpolo secure the rebound for the Trojans. When Agbonkpolo missed a subsequent 3, Evan Mobley grabbed the rebound and scored to push the lead to 72-66 with 35 seconds left.

That took the suspense out, and Eaddy and the younger Mobley closed the game out at the line with 4 more free throws.

With that, USC got back on track after having a six-game winning streak snapped in that loss Tuesday at Oregon State.

“This was a big road win for us coming off a loss. It was important that we got back on the winning track, which we did tonight, and our players played exceptionally hard all night and battled through a big road win,” Enfield said. “… Cal’s a very good basketball team now that they’re full-strength, and especially at home. So we had to just grind out a win and I’m very proud of our players.”

He sounded especially proud of Evan Mobley, who had gone just 5 of 8 from the field and 2 for 2 from the line for 13 points vs. the Beavers. Enfield has been protective of his 5-star 7-foot phenom this season, often finding cause to remind reporters that Mobley is only a freshman and is still learning.

Part of that learning process was apparently a push by the coaching staff for him to be more aggressive and assertive, which he most certainly was while getting to the line for 15 free throws and coming through with big baskets in the second half especially, scoring 17 of his points after halftime.

“We ran a lot of isolations for him in the high post and in the low post, and he did a good job being aggressive. He was much more aggressive tonight than he was Tuesday,” Enfield said. “He made really, really strong quick moves and put pressure on the defense. I think you saw an improved Evan Mobley [from] earlier in the week. He’s getting better, and we demanded that of him this week and he responded in a huge way. … We need him to play like that on a nightly basis for us to be successful.”

The play of Anderson was also very encouraging. After missing eight games with a back injury, the sophomore point guard hadn’t looked himself in his first three games back while scoring a combined 8 points over those contests. His 11 points Saturday came in an expanded role of 27 minutes, and his defense was just as impactful.

“We need Ethan Anderson to play at a high level. He did not play well the first three games. He was limited minutes the first two, he didn’t play well against Oregon State. Tonight I thought he was exceptional at certain points of the game with his toughness, his dribble penetration, he made two 3s and he’s our best on-ball defender as a guard. So we need him to keep elevating his game,” Enfield said. “He’s not back to where he was, but I think tonight was a great start to getting Ethan back. … I don’t think we would have won this game without him tonight.”

Again, though, even in the glow of the win, Enfield was still disappointed with what happened Thursday, as it’s now unclear when or if the Trojans will be able to reschedule with Stanford.

For a team hoping to compete for a Pac-12 title and also build a resume for NCAA tournament consideration, every lost game is a lost opportunity. USC already had to juggle and rearrange its schedule after having two non-conference games cancelled and two conference games postponed during an early COVID-related shutdown.

“We were hopeful that we could still get in the game in early [on Thursday], but Stanford didn’t have a rapid PCR test like USC does. So we couldn’t get the young man retested in time for the game. Once we did that, he took four more tests — two PCR, two antigens, they were all negative. But we knew all along it was a false positive because he had six tests before that in the last three days. Like I said, you don’t get COVID by staying in a hotel room or on a bus, so we all knew it was false. It was just disappointing we lost a game, so therefore we had to wait,” he said, expounding on the events of Thursday.

“We had to get the fourth PCR test back — that didn’t come back until about 8:30 p.m., so we were stuck in the hotel in Santa Cruz until then, and then once we found out we were able to travel again we then came up to Berkeley late Thursday night and spent the last two days here in Berkeley to prepare for this game. It’s very frustrating when you’re ready to play. This season has been so tough with the cancellations and postponements, and to have another game postponed or cancelled it was very frustrating.”

With that frustrating being compounded by the inability to reschedule the Stanford game during this road trip …

“We tried. We said we’d play Friday, Sunday or Monday, and I think we should play it on Monday. We were going to stay, but Stanford did not want to play the game, and I guess our league policy is that you have to have both teams agree to it,” Enfield said. “So we thought that since we were here and neither of us play until Thursday that Monday would be a good time to play the game, even if it was early at noon or 1 p.m. so we would have time to get back and they would have time, but that’s out of my control. We were disappointed the game was cancelled on Thursday, and we were willing to play up here because we’re here. It’s going to get harder and harder to make up games because you just don’t know. With our schedule as it is now, we have a lot of games left and then it’s just harder to find places where both teams can play, like we thought Monday would be a good day. But anyway, that’s not my decision and that’s all I can say on it.”

Guard Drew Peterson, who has been a key cog for USC this season after transferring in from Rice, has struggled the last two games. He finished 1 for 8 for 3 points on Saturday, after shooting 3 of 9 for 10 points Tuesday.

“He missed three open 3s and he missed two layups, so not a whole lot as a coaching staff we can do except encourage him. We expect him to take open jump shots and we expect him to be able to finish at the rim. … He was 3 for 9 the other night, 1 for 8 tonight, so obviously we need him to shoot a higher percentage,” Enfield said. “Drew’s had two games where he’s been not as good as he has been, because he’s been terrific all season, but it’s a long basketball season and not every player is going to play great every time out and we understand that. Drew’s a huge part of what we’re trying to do, and we’re going to shake this off, keep encouraging him and I’m sure Thursday night at home he’s going to play great.”

Enfield was also asked how he would balance the guard rotation between Eaddy, Anderson and Peterson with Anderson now healthy again.

“How we rotate our guards is pretty simple — whoever plays well stays in the game and whoever’s struggling comes out,” he said.

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