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I pretty much wrote off the USC men’s basketball team a while back, thinking it had two chances at making the NCAA tournament — slim and none.But after defeating UCLA at the Galen Center in early January, I thought this year would be different.A weak conference coupled with the play of midseason transfer guard Jio Fontan and the emergence of junior forward Nikola Vucevic, had given the Trojans life.They clobbered then-No. 19 Texas at home (Texas is now No. 5 in the nation), went to the wire at No. 3 Kansas and eked out a victory at then-No. 19 Tennessee.This all happened within a two-and-a-half week stretch, and I felt this was the year the basketball program had a legitimate shot to be dancing in March.Then Oregon and bottom-dwelling Oregon State defeated USC. The Trojans followed up an empty road trip alternating wins and losses in their next four games.Inconsistent play, an ineptness to solve a zone defense and an inability to make free-throws were their most glaring weaknesses.That summed up the first half of conference play, and the second half didn’t start off any differently — a loss at UCLA and a home split with the Oregon schools made USC’s chances look even bleaker.Then, after Valentine’s Day, something changed.Maybe the USC basketball players were re-energized with all that chocolate, or maybe USC coach Kevin O’Neill had a change of heart.Senior guard Donte Smith was inserted into the starting lineup and freshman guard Maurice Jones came off the bench for the first time all season.And it worked.Jones poured in 22 points off the bench, sparking USC to a 78-75 victory. At one point in the second half, he scored 16 points in just under six minutes.With the win, the Trojans snapped their eight-game losing streak.Next up: The Stanford Cardinal.For the second consecutive game, Jones came off the bench and Smith was once again the starter.It worked again.USC convincingly defeated Stanford 69-53, and for the first time since 1992, it swept the Bay Area schools.And for the first time since January 2008, the Trojans won back-to-back road games.One simple lineup change translated to two wins on the road, and arguably two of USC’s most complete games this season.The Trojans were in eighth place in the Pac-10, but now they sit in a tie for fourth place in the conference with Oregon.With No. 10 Arizona and Washington still on its schedule (two teams that are projected to make the NCAA tournament), USC can bolster its resumé for the selection committee assuming it wins.Pending these results, along with the games against Arizona State and Washington State, USC could receive a bye in the opening round of the Pac-10 Tournament.And depending on their performance in the tournament, the Trojans have a shot at reaching 20 wins, which is the measuring stick for teams looking to punch their ticket to the Big Dance.Now, it’s conceivable to think it’s possible.I like what O’Neill has done, too.Though Smith certainly gives the team a scoring threat off the bench, moving Jones to a sixth-man-type role changes the whole dynamic of a game.His speed changes the tempo of the game and I see his role as literally a sparkplug off the bench.The move also puts Fontan into more of a facilitator’s role, but also leaves Smith to do the same one thing O’Neill wants him to do: shoot.As opposed to having basically two point guards (Jones and Fontan) in the backcourt, Smith spreads the floor with his shooting ability, and gives more room for Vucevic and senior forward Alex Stepheson to operate in the post.As a whole, this move changes the entire complexion of the starting lineup, and it has certainly shown up in the stat sheet.Since the change, Vucevic has averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds, while Stepheson has averaged 12.5 points and eight rebounds — both stats exceed their season averages to this point.With the improved play of their two big men, along with rejuvenated guard play, the Trojans might be sniffing the finish line.And despite all its troubles on the court (beating a zone defense, free-throw shooting) and off the court (guard Bryce Jones transferring), USC is certainly keeping its NCAA tournament hopes alive with its recent play.The Trojans were down, but don’t count them out just yet. As the old adage goes, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.Now, USC is certainly making a case with its play to finish strong and dance its way into March.“In the Zone” runs Thursdays. To comment on this article visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Trevor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on April 1, 2018 at 5:29 pm Contact Anthony: email@example.com Even after Gabriela Knutson and partner Miranda Ramirez steamrolled the No. 1 doubles team in the nation, 6-2, Syracuse still needed one more win to earn the doubles point.All eyes turned to court one, where Dina Hegab and Masha Tritou trailed. The pair had squandered the 3-2 lead they had early in the match, and now had to serve to keep themselves in the set. Tritou used her lanky 6-foot frame to control the net. The combination of Hegab’s aggressive baseline play and Tritou’s net control produced three volley winners for the Orange to level the set at 5-all.Moments later, the pair played yet another pressure filled point as the 11th game of the set went to a deciding deuce point. Hegab forced a missed volley, and SU went ahead for good. Despite the numerous long rallies, Hegab and Tritou won almost every crucial point in the set. On an 18-ball rally, they clinched the doubles point as the ball floated beyond the baseline.After the heartbreak of two close 4-3 losses decided in the final match earlier this season, Knutson and SU closed out a program-defining victory. But Knutson would not have been in position to pull off the biggest upset in school history if not for Hegab and Tritou, who combined to deliver 2.5 points for SU. No. 34 Syracuse (14-3, 6-3 Atlantic Coast) had never defeated a top-10 team in school history prior to Sunday, when the Orange upset No. 3 Georgia Tech (14-4, 6-2) 4-3.“When we stepped on the court we knew it would be close,” Hegab said. “It would be really tough, we knew doubles would probably matter, we knew it could be a 4-3 match.”AdvertisementThis is placeholder textLike she has done so often this season, Hegab took care of business on court six. Hegab’s match is often overlooked because she plays her match a few hundred feet away from the bleachers, with no way for the fans to get close to the action. With all eyes poised on Knutson’s tight third set on one side of Drumlins, Hegab quietly took care of business in the opposite corner, winning 6-3, 6-3 at sixth singles.When Hegab clinched the match, she let out a huge yell, and it took many of the fans a few moments to turn around and realize that SU had just grabbed its third point of the afternoon.Sunday was Hegab’s 12th singles win of the season, and eighth in conference. She has yet to lose in singles at Drumlins this season, and has played the majority of her home matches on court six.“I definitely feel like I own it,” Hegab said. “This is my court, even in practice.”After sitting out four of the last five matches in singles, head coach Younes Limam made the lineup decision to reinsert Tritou into the singles ladder. At fourth singles, Tritou played one of her most consistent matches. She jumped out to an early 5-2 lead, breaking serve twice in her opponents first three service games.She closed out the opening set 6-2 but faced much tougher resistance in the second. Tritou never trailed in the second set, but could not pull away until the final two games of the set. She battled back to hold serve at 4-all and then delivered a break of serve to close out her first singles victory since March 13.“It was a huge team effort by everyone,” Limam said. “Every point matters, it doesn’t matter if it’s one or six.”Even after Hegab’s day on the court was done, she could barely stand still. She looked on nervously, watching as Knutson tried to close out the biggest win in program history. The match was on her racket, serving on match point.Hegab let out a huge cheer as Knutson served an ace up the middle to clinch the victory for SU. Before Knutson could even shake hands with her opponent, her teammates mobbed her at mid-court. Hegab made sure she was the first person to embrace her close friend. The two shared a moment together, hugging out all of their emotions as the entire team joined in for a celebration years in the making.“Watching someone else makes me even more nervous than playing,” Hegab said. “I was so excited and so nervous, I wanted it so badly and we got it.”Knutson’s clinching win may have ignited the celebrations for SU, but without Hegab and Tritou, the greatest in Syracuse history wouldn’t have been possible. Comments