Cal Starts Pac-10 Play On High Note, Tops USC 92-82

Sam SugarmanCorrespondent IJanuary 4, 2008

After struggling with his shooting throughout the non-conference season, Eric Vierneisel found the perfect time to regain his touch.

Vierneisel made consecutive three pointers to break open a one-point game midway through the second half, as California spoiled O.J. Mayo's high-scoring Pac-10 debut by beating No. 22 Southern California 92-82 on Thursday night.

"It's been kind of a struggle the first part of the season," Vierneisel said. "Tonight it was going in so I can't really complain. I have confidence in my shot, my teammates have confidence in me, my coaches have confidence in me. That's what I'm out there to do."

Vierneisel was 6-for-35 on 3-pointers this season before hitting the two from long range that put Cal (10-2, 1-0) up 72-65 with 5:44 to go. That started a 15-3 run that carried the Golden Bears to their fourth win in twelve conference openers under coach Ben Braun.

Patrick Christopher led the way for Cal with 24 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists. Jerome Randle added 16 points and nine assists and Vierneisel had a career-high 15.

"Everybody knows Eric can knock down shots," Braun said. "He got in the game and played with extreme confidence. That's not easy for a guy who has been struggling. I thought he played with confidence and played with poise."

Mayo, the talented freshman, scored 34 points—but missed seven of 10 three pointers for USC (9-4, 0-1). Dwight Lewis added 17 points and Davon Jefferson had 12.

The game turned on the outside shooting of both teams. Cal had hit 26 three pointers in its previous two wins over Long Beach State and North Dakota State, but the Bears didn't figure to have the same sort of success against a USC team that had held its last nine opponents to 62 points or fewer.The Bears topped that before the midpoint of the second half and kept scoring, finishing with the most points against USC since Mercer had 96 in the season opener.

The only teams that have beat the Trojans since then were No. 2 Memphis and No. 3 Kansas—but even those teams didn't score as easily as the Bears did. Cal was 11 of 25 from long range for the game, hitting three straight at one point midway through the half to erase a USC lead. The Trojans' first twelve opponents made just 29 percent of their three pointers.

"We were down throughout the game, and right when you get in reach there's another three," Mayo said. "It happened time and time again...any time as a team you give up 92 points, it's going to be tough to win on the road. They shot well from the arc but we have to communicate better on defense."

USC missed 15 of 20 three pointers for the game. USC guard Angelo Johnson left the court briefly after hitting the ground hard when he was fouled by Harper Kamp after making a layup that gave the Trojans their first lead since midway through the first half at 55-53. Daniel Hackett made the free throw to complete the three-point play. Jefferson, however, was called for a technical foul on the play for USC.

Randle made both free throws to cut USC's lead to one with 11:28 remaining. Randle, Ryan Anderson and Jordan Wilkes then hit treys on the next three possessions to put Cal back up by eight and complete an 11-0 run in a span of 1:12.

"We had a lot of momentum at that point," USC coach Tim Floyd said. "It changed things during that stretch. We have to play smarter and that has something to do with the young guys that are out there."

DeVon Hardin had 15 points and 10 rebounds and Anderson scored 15 for Cal. Cal scored nine straight points during a stretch in the first half to take a 31-21 lead. That's when Mayo picked it up offensively for the Trojans to keep them close.

Mayo scored eight points in the final 4:34 of the half, including a pull-up jumper in the final seconds that cut the Bears' lead to 38-32. Mayo was the only USC player to hit a basket in the final eight minutes. The only other points the Trojans scored came on three free throws by Lewis after Hardin fouled him on a three point attempt in the final minute of the half.