Josh Morgan lay face down in the paint, his 6-foot-10 frame writhing in pain. As USC's lone starting big man, Morgan and his freakish length had been a critical part of the Trojans' designs to clamp down against Washington State, a team that made a mockery of their defense just a month earlier.
But now a wrench had been thrown into those plans a mere five minutes into Thursday's matchup at Galen Center. Now, as Morgan hobbled off the court, unable to put weight on his right foot, USC would have to cobble together a new frontcourt, counting on the rest of its lineup to clamp down.
The Trojans would ultimately do just enough to slip past Washington State without its big man 80-70; though, this particular victory would hardly be the defensive statement USC hoped to make.
Winning its fifth game in six tries would mean weathering an all-out assault on the paint by Washington State's Mouhamed Gueye, who scored a career-high 31 points. It would require another stellar offensive effort from its star seniors, with Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson combining for 43 points, and a strong shooting performance all around, as USC shot 52% overall and 47% from the three-point line, a significant improvement from the last time these two teams met.
Even still, USC led by just three points with less than two minutes remaining when Washington State's leading scorer TJ Bamba fired from three-point range with designs on tying the game.
But his attempt barely passed the arc as Vince Iwuchukwu, the Trojans' freshman 7-footer and Morgan's direct backup, swatted the shot out of midair and closed the book on Washington State.
Peterson did the rest by sinking a three on the next possession, saving USC's recent progress from being entirely derailed.
"We missed Josh Morgan, obviously," USC coach Andy Enfield said. "Not having Josh, one of the best defensive big guys in the country, not having him in there to rotate, when you're playing a special talent like Mouhamed Gueye, you need a bigger guy in there sometimes. He had a special night offensively."
Iwuchukwu, who had played in just five games this season, did his best to fill that void, scoring five points and adding four blocks, two of which came on a critical possession late.
"Vince was terrific," Enfield said. "He played very hard. He's starting to get a good feel, a good rhythm. It's so hard for him, you go through what he did, and then not play. Forget about the medical issue, talking about the lack of playing. He had no training camp. No summer basketball. No fall. No scrimmages. We throw him into Pac-12 play in the middle of the season, and it takes time to adjust."
USC had hoped it could adjust from its loss to the Cougars last month. Washington State made USC pay dearly for its lackluster effort on defense in their previous meeting, torching the Trojans from behind the arc. The Cougars hit 14 three-pointers to deal USC a New Year's Day defeat that Enfield would later call USC's worst defensive performance of the season.
Its defense didn't look much better at the start of Thursday's game. USC was overwhelmed inside by Gueye, who scored the Cougars first 11 points, eight of which came in the paint. He'd put up 20 before halftime, helping Washington State push out to a 13-point lead, before USC finally woke up, rattling off its own 17-2 run to grab the lead back.
But it would lose Morgan, its starting center, to an injury in the process. After landing awkwardly in the paint, Morgan could barely put any weight on his right foot as he hobbled to the locker room. He never returned, leaving USC with an even thinner frontcourt than usual.
That left Iwuchukwu to be thrust into his most significant role yet, sharing the frontcourt primarily with freshman Kijani Wright and sophomore stretch forward Harrison Hornery. Iwuchukwu, who is still under a minutes restriction, had yet to play more than 17 minutes before Thursday, when he played 22, the most important of which came with time running down and Washington State clinging on late.
With 1:35 left, Washington State's Justin Powell drove for the hoop, only to be turned away by a block from Iwuchukwu. Sixteen seconds later, the ball made it around to Bamba behind the arc. Iwuchukwu was there once again to swat it.
"That block was awesome," Peterson said. "It's great seeing him progress like this."
USC may need more of that from its five-star freshman. How much more, however, was unknown as of Thursday night, with Morgan's status uncertain.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.