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February 22, 2008

Mayo leads comeback against Ducks

After putting an embarrassing loss on his own shoulders, O.J. Mayo hoisted USC onto his back. Catcalls for him to return for a sophomore season, along with reports of a plummeting draft stock, all of a sudden appeared childish, almost rude.

Still, through much of Thursday's first half, Mayo looked just as uncomfortable as he had last weekend. Hobbled by an injured groin, he committed 10 turnovers in a 10-point loss to UCLA. As his team failed to contain Oregon early Thursday -- the Trojans trailed by as many as 15 points -- Mayo had a hard time shooting and continued to cough up the ball.

With Mayo's struggles hitting their peak, officials whistled him for his third foul. It was still the first half, but coach Tim Floyd left him in the game.

That's when things started to go right. First for Mayo. Then for his team.

Mayo scored 21 of his 32 points in the second half, and the Trojans outscored Oregon 56-37 over the final 23:08, for an 81-75 victory at the Galen Center.

"Coach, at halftime, he pointed me out, he pointed a few other guys out that weren't really guarding anyone," Mayo said. "He was like, 'It's going to be a shame that we don't get into the (NCAA) Tournament because we can't guard anyone.'

"That (defense) is what we really pride ourself on, so we really wanted to come out and respond to Coach."

USC forced only one turnover in the first half and allowed Oregon to shoot 50 percent from the floor, after holding opponents to .392 through the first 12 Pac-10 games. Following the break, USC seemed energized, forcing six turnovers, while outrebounding Oregon, 15-9. During the conference season, the Trojans had been outrebounded by an average of almost 6.5 per game.

USC now holds a one-game cushion on fellow conference bubble teams Arizona, Arizona State and California, along with a 1.5-game advantage on Oregon and Washington. At 7-6 in the Pac-10, USC ranks fourth in the conference, with winless Oregon State coming Saturday.

Mayo did not win it alone.

Thursday's biggest difference: Reserve forward Keith Wilkinson. After Floyd utilized his bench for only eight minutes in the loss to UCLA, Wilkinson played 23 minutes Thursday, includes 17 in the second half. He grabbed 11 rebounds, including three dramatic ones on the offensive end.

After swatting an Oregon shot -- after USC had taken its first lead, with 9:15 remaining -- officials saw that Wilkinson's right elbow was bleeding and sent him to the bench. He received a standing ovation, despite a box score that registered zero points.

"I love being out on the court," Wilkinson said, later adding, "It's always great to get the crowd into it."

Angelo Johnson, Dwight Lewis and Taj Gibson scored in double figures. Gibson contributed eight points in the first half, serving as USC's only consistent scoring threat until Mayo came on late in the period.

One player who did not contribute: Daniel Hackett.

The Trojans' starting point guard had watched his team go 0-3 when he spends all -- or almost all -- of the game on the bench. Suffering from a stress fracture in his lower back and a torn oblique muscle, Hackett sat behind his teammates in a grey sweatshirt Thursday night.

USC's offense -- stagnant without his ability to penetrate in the first half -- finally regained its old look, playing fast and shooting 55.6 percent in the second half.

"I'm not sure we had a great belief that we could go win without him," Floyd said. "I think this gives us a little confidence."

Mayo appeared to be at his most confident with 2:05 remaining and the Trojans clinging to a one-point lead. With the shot clock winding down and his teammates well-covered, Mayo sank a 3-pointer from several feet beyond the top of the key.

"At the end of our practices, we play a lot of horse," he said. "We hit that shot a lot in horse games, so it was an opportunity for me to knock it down."

Mayo shot 5-of-7 from 3-point range and 8-of-18 overall, after making only a third of his baskets in the first half. He committed only one turnover in the second half, three in the first.

"I'm real proud of him," Gibson said. "He took the role of saying (the UCLA loss) was his fault, even though he didn't have to do that. And he came out today and did a phenomenal job."

NOTED: Floyd was asked whether Wilkinson would continue to see extended duty. The coach replied, "If Davon (Jefferson) guards, he'll have a chance to play. ... We have to make (defense) the staple. That's who we are right now." Jefferson, like Wilkinson, played 23 minutes.

Jonathan Kay can be reached at Jon@USCFootball.com


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