LOS ANGELES — Before the Galen Center was filled on Thursday night, the stands were vacant enough for one shrill voice to pierce the sanctuary of USC’s early warm-ups.
“Isaiah!” yelled one young fan wearing a USC jersey, beaming, leaning toward the court in the direction of Isaiah Collier.
The Trojans’ electric freshman floor general turned to him, a smile spreading across the 19-year-old’s face. He pointed, right at him.
And the boy shrieked.
The USC basketball program hasn’t had a figure quite like this in a while, a player who combines one-and-done talent with style and charisma to match. And a bolt of lightning shot through Galen on Thursday, amid an otherwise sleepy crowd for the 6 p.m. start in the team’s home debut, when Collier emerged from the tunnel during pregame introductions to the tune of Soulja Boy’s “Pretty Boy Swag,” the crowd roaring so loud it temporarily drowned out the public address announcer.
And the show Collier put on in the first half was special, the engine of a No. 21 Trojans squad that built a 24-point lead by halftime and boat raced Cal State Bakersfield, 85-59, Roadrunner defenders looking like tumbleweeds when he decided to gearshift from 0 to 60. He spent much of the first 15 minutes pushing the pace in transition, dishing assists to bigs off pick-and-rolls or firing torpedoes to shooters stationed in weak-side corners, and he showed notable patience after a six-turnover debut.
“Track meet – we say that a lot, so, I mean, it’s just runnin’,” Collier said after the game.
With a minute left in the first half and a 20-point lead, though, Collier went into attack mode, calling for a transition pass he never received. Senior guard Boogie Ellis motioned at him though, and a burly Collier sealed his defender, driving baseline and hanging long enough to split the outstretched arms of a couple of potential shot blockers.
He flipped a right-handed layup over his head, looking like it would clank off the backboard, but, seeming to defy the laws of momentum, it kissed with perfect spin and dropped through.
Collier finished with 19 points, five assists and four steals, part of a dynamic USC attack that has improved noticeably in shooting and ball movement compared to last year’s squad. Washington State transfer DJ Rodman hit back-to-back 3-pointers at one point in the first half, later draining a wide-open transition look, and finished with 13 points after a quiet showing in an 82-69 victory over Kansas State on Monday night in Las Vegas.
“I really feel like I’m gonna step into a role that’s going to be more of a scoring, more assertive role here,” Rodman said last week, a prophecy fulfilled on Thursday night.
USC shot 59% from the field in the first half, scoring 19 points off Bakersfield turnovers.
Collier, though, ran into some second-half trouble, turning the ball over on three straight possessions after he had six turnovers in his collegiate debut on Monday. It’s a noticeable issue for a lead guard who attacks at breakneck speed, sometimes prone to tripping over his own feet or getting stripped – but it’s also part of who Collier is, an agent of chaos in the open court.
“The good players can get to where they want,” Coach Andy Enfield said after the win, “but the great players know what to do when they get there. And so, he has to figure out what to do when he gets there, because he can get where he wants on the court.”
They couldn’t rely entirely, too, on a freshman point guard, as Enfield pointed out. And USC was helped, too, by balanced scoring overall, even in wing Kobe Johnson’s absence – day-to-day, Enfield said, after an injury suffered in the season opener.
Lithe sophomore guard Oziyah Sellers, who Enfield has pointed out as much-improved, chipped in an efficient 16 points. Stalwart big Joshua Morgan added 12 points off some nice feeds from Collier and Ellis, and the USC bigs and perimeter defenders rotated well while holding Bakersfield to 42% shooting.
Ellis was held to 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting (1 for 6 from 3-point range) after scoring 24 in the season opener.
Kaleb Higgins led the Roadrunners (1-1) with 19 points and Cameron Wilbon had 10.
USC hosts UC Irvine on Tuesday at 8 p.m.
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