USC responds to interim coach Cantu with win at rival UCLA

The Trojans have had a true turnaround since Kevin O'Neill was fired a few weeks ago. (US Presswire)

USC had something to celebrate. Finally.

It had been a miserable season, despite lofty expectations. The team was 7-10 overall and it was just a matter of time before athletic director pulled the plug on the flammable Kevin O'Neill. It happened just days after a rout over Utah in Salt Lake City,on Jan. 14. 

"I don't think people realized how big of a change it was going to be until practice started," Trojans starter Byron Wesley said. "Everything changed." 

Now the players aren't as worried about making a mistake, getting verbally accosted and pulled from the lineup, Wesley said. Interim coach Bob Cantu is the polar opposite of K.O., even-keeled. Cantu also has installed an up-tempo style of play, allowing the players to push the ball when the opportunity presents itself and also be more aggressive in the passing lanes on the defensive end. Cantu refers to it as "freedom with structure." 

"Guys are much more relaxed now," Wesley said. "Cantu is always composed." 

"If you mess up, instead of yelling at you, he's still giving you confidence," he added. "That's what we needed." 

What this team needed was exactly what happened on Wednesday night -- a huge upset at Pauley Pavilion over crosstown rival UCLA. The Trojans were in command most of the contest, even though they had to go to overtime to pull off the 75-71 victory. Five players were in double-figures -- led by Jio Fontan and Aaron Fuller's 15 points. Eric Wise had a dozen while Wesley and J.T. Terrell added 10 apiece. 

"We've been ready for that game since before the season started," Wesley said. "We marked it on our calendar. They beat us three times last year." 

The Trojans have no shot at an at-large berth, even after the win over the Bruins. Not after their slip-ups in a brutal nonconference slate. However, USC improved to 4-5 in league play and Wesley said there's just a different feel around the program than was the case a month or so ago. The Trojans are 2-3 since O'Neill's departure, losing close games to Oregon and Arizona State -- and getting blasted by Arizona in Tucson. 

"It's a different vibe," Wesley said. "Especially after the win against UCLA. We're feeling good about the way we're playing. It's just different now. Cantu is letting us play." 

Remember, this is a group that was picked by some to go to the NCAA tourney prior to the season. They were injury-free after a disastrous campaign last year in which nearly everyone was hurt at one point or another. This team had talented guards with Fontan, Terrell and Wesley, no shortage of big men with Dewayne Dedmon and Omar Oraby and Wise, Fuller, Wake transfer Ari Stewart and Tennessee transfer Renaldo Woolridge competing for minutes at the forward spots. 

"We thought we'd be an NCAA tourney team," Wesley said "We had a lot of seniors, and a lot of talent. But we took a lot of close losses early. It was a matter of us finding our identity. We didn't figure it out as quickly as we had hoped. Our nonconference schedule probably wasn't the best thing for us, but now guys are understanding their roles and we're starting to see some success." 

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