Isaiah Mobley scores 23 to lead No. 16 USC past Eastern Kentucky

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Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley (3) shoots against Eastern Kentucky forward Jannson Williams (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
USC forward Isaiah Mobley shoots against Eastern Kentucky forward Jannson Williams during the first half Tuesday at Galen Center. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Figuring the opponent’s best chance was to bomb away from behind the three-point line, the USC men’s basketball team employed tight perimeter defense and pounded the ball inside at every opportunity for easy layups to build a comfortable halftime lead before settling for a sloppy 80-68 nonconference victory over visiting Eastern Kentucky on Tuesday at Galen Center.

Eastern Kentucky made just three of 17 attempts from beyond the arc (17.6%) in the first half while USC outscored the Colonels 22-6 in the paint and won the battle of the boards 26-14 in the first 20 minutes. The Trojans enjoyed a 41-25 lead at intermission.

Isaiah Mobley led the way with a career-high 23 points and 13 rebounds, Drew Peterson added 15, Joshua Morgan had 14 and Max Agbonkpolo scored 12 for the Trojans, who won by double-digits despite 18 turnovers.

Morgan’s alley-oop dunk off a perfectly timed lob pass from Memphis transfer Boogie Ellis ballooned USC’s lead to 18 early in the second half and the margin grew as wide as 24 points with 10 minutes left.

“I had to slide my feet today so I didn’t get any cheap fouls,” said Mobley, who was a career-best five of six from long range. “I was feeling it early, I saw a couple go down and we got on a run. We figured out how to attack their full-court pressure and as time went on we got to our spots to beat the trap and that led to easy dunks.”

USC began the night as one of only 12 unbeaten teams remaining in Division I college basketball this season and was determined to keep its perfect record intact in the Trojans’ first-ever meeting against the Colonels, who were playing their first game in California since a 98-83 loss at Cal State Fullerton in 1999. The Trojans (9-0) are off to their best start since winning their first 14 games to begin the 2016-17 campaign.

“Tonight was my night but we’re building chemistry and sometimes it’ll be me or Boogie or Ethan or Max or Drew,” Mobley added. “Coming off an Elite Eight appearance last season we have high expectations again, but we understand it takes time. I’m always looking for ways to impact the game anyway I can.”

USC guard Boogie Ellis drives past Eastern Kentucky guard Dashawn Jackson.
USC guard Boogie Ellis drives past Eastern Kentucky guard Dashawn Jackson during the first half Tuesday at Galen Center. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Though more of the hype in the Southland this season has centered on the Trojans’ crosstown rivals in Westwood, USC is ranked No. 16 in the country in the Associated Press poll. The Trojans resume their three-game homestand Sunday afternoon against Long Beach State. They resume Pac-12 action Dec. 30 when they host Arizona State.

Braxton Beverly led the Colonels (5-5), who had made 13 or more three-pointers in seven of their first nine games, including a season-high 18 at Western Kentucky on Dec. 4. Three consecutive three-pointers with under five minutes cut Eastern Kentucky’s deficit to 12 and prompted USC coach Andy Enfield to call timeout. The Colonels crept to within 10 with 1:30 left but got no closer.

“Isaiah was playing great tonight. He was hitting everything,” Peterson said. “We don’t have a centerpiece like Evan was last year, but anyone can step up on any given night. We have so many weapons on this team and everyone’s getting better. They were something like four of 30 from three at one point. Besides that stretch at the end where [the Colonels] caught fire we did a pretty good job defending their outside shooters.”

Eastern Kentucky ended up 10 of 39 from three-point range (25.6%) and stayed in the game in part by shooting 12 of 12 from the free throw line and getting 11 steals. USC outrebounded the Colonels 47-32.

Off the bench, Morgan had eight points and Reese Dixon-Waters had six for USC, which was outscored 43-39 in the second half. Although Beverly had the hot hand, two other Colonels finished in double figures — Curt Lewis with 11 and Jannson William with 10.

“We knew they would give us issues with their three-point accuracy — and they did,” Enfield said. “They’re a very dangerous team, they like to spread you out, we’re big and long and were chasing their guards. We got four or five charges which is uncharacteristic for us, but on the plus side we ended up with 23 assists and four guys had at least three, so we shared the ball.”

UP NEXT

Sunday, vs. Long Beach State, 2 p.m., Galen Center, Pac-12 Networks — The Trojans will play Big West Conference opponents in their next two games, starting with the 49ers (2-6). They are led by 6-foot guard Joel Murray, who plays 30 minutes a game and averages 17.1 points on 49.5% shooting. Forward Joe Hampton and guard Colin Slater also score in double figures at 11.7 and 11.5 points, respectively. USC then plays UC Irvine on

Dec. 15.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.