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March 12, 2009

Trojans hang against Cal

Close.

It's a word that can be easily used to describe the 2008-09 USC basketball season.

The Trojans were close to getting Alex Stephenson eligible after transferring from North Carolina. USC was close to picking up a win against Seton Hall, giving them a chance to face a top five team like Memphis.

They were close at Oklahoma, close at Oregon State, close against UCLA, close at Cal and close at Washington.

Thursday night at Staples Center all of those experiences where USC left the court with losses paid off against Cal in the first round of the Pac-10 Tournament.

With the game on the line, Cal, not USC, looked like the rattled team, with the Trojans hanging on for a 79-75 win.

USC will now face either UCLA or Washington State in the second semifinal Friday night.

USC head coach Tim Floyd said his team better be used to tight games by now; they've played a lifetime's worth in one season.

"It's really all we played in all year gone. Every single game has been like that. We've lost some, and we've won our share. The difference down the stretch was that we controlled both boards, and our guys stepped up and made free throws."

Daniel Hackett sank a pair of free throws with the score tied and 3.8 seconds on the clock, and after an unforced Cal turnover, Hackett made another pair.

"I just wanted to step up and knock them down," he said. "Lately I've been staying late and shooting them. Once you get in rhythm, you get the ball under your chin, you just let it go."

Hackett said the difference down the stretch for his team was fairly simple.

"We took care of the ball and got the ball where it needed to be, down in the post to the big fella," he said. "We got to the free throw line and took good shots."

Taj Gibson led everyone with 21 points and 16 rebounds. DeMar DeRozan added 17 points and 11 boards, and Hackett finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.

Gibson said he never sensed any panic in his team, even with Cal cutting serious slices into USC-point first half lead.

"We played with a lot of poise," Gibson said. "We know we still have a lot of games left. It was really tough losing early this season. We kept our poise knowing we'd have a chance in the Pac-10 Tournament."

Gibson and the rest of the Trojans probably need to win at least one more game to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, but Floyd said he thinks the team, when at full strength like they were Thursday, is tough to handle.

"We're a pretty good sixth-place team," he said. "I want to remind people that when we were healthy, we went to Oklahoma and lost by one. We've lost Leonard Washington for five weeks. (We lost Dwight Lewis and Marcus Johnson.)

"This is the first time we've been healthy since that Oklahoma game, and we're a pretty good basketball team."

And now, the Trojans are close again - this time, to a NCAA Tournament berth.


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