In many games this year, Stanford (13-11, 6-6) has been a two-man team, relying too heavily on Daejon Davis and KZ Okpala, Tonight, they secured the win with the two sophomores watching from the bench.
KZ Okpala had a strong game for Stanford; his 11 second half points turned a major deficit into a late lead for the Cardinal. Yet the sophomore phenom picked up his fifth foul with a minute to go and Stanford trailing by 4 points. They looked dead to rights.
But that was when one of the least likely heroes stepped up for the Cardinal. Marcus Sheffield, who’s seen his minutes ebb throughout the season, caught the ball at the top of the key. He waited as a Trojan defender flew by him, and pump faked to let yet another go by. He calmly rose up from distance and canned the trey, making it a 1 point game. It was his fourth three of the night, and it gave Stanford hope.
With still 44 seconds to go, the Stanford defense dug in. The USC offense couldn’t get anything to the basket, and Oscar da Silva used his length to force a steal. There were 23 seconds to go, and Jerod Haase called time to draw up the go-ahead play.
Out of the timeout, Bryce Wills took the ball to the basket, and he was not to be stopped. The youngest player in the Pac-12 made a veteran move, converting an and-one to give the Cardinal the lead. After a missed Bennie Boatwright jumpshot and two more Wills foul shots, Stanford capped its fifth straight home victory over the Trojans.
For a long while, it didn’t look like it was Stanford’s night. The Trojans built up an early 12 point lead, as NBA prospect Kevin Porter Jr poured in 10 first half points. The absence of Daejon Davis loomed large for Stanford, as Cormac Ryan and Bryce Wills did not appear up to the task of being primary ball handlers. The Cardinal committed 8 turnovers before the break.
But as has so often been the case this year, Jerod Haase’s team responded out of the locker room. They got after USC defensively, forcing 9 Trojan turnovers in the period. Porter Jr was no longer able to slash to the rim, and was settling for difficult jumpshots. Most importantly, though, the Cardinal were more active. Josh Sharma was as active as anyone, as he hustled his way to 10 second half points on 5-5 shooting.
Winning a game like this is huge for the Cardinal, who have been on the wrong end of a number of close ones thus far. One of the most stark developments has been the continued strong play of Sharma and Sheffield. The young squad has benefited greatly from the two veterans elevating their games. Bryce Wills’ emergence has also been crucial. The freshman looks like he has star potential.
Okpala led the Cardinal in scoring with 18 on the game. Marcus Sheffield put in 16 off the bench, Sharma added 14 and 9, and Wills chipped in 11 big ones. The Cardinal now find themselves in a logjam in the middle of the Pac-12 standings, highlighting the importance of each game down the stretch.
USC was led by the 19 of Bennie Boatwright. Jonah Matthews scored 16, and Nick Rakocevic put in 15 and 11.
Stanford will host UCLA on Saturday. The Bruins needed overtime to defeat Cal earlier tonight.