by Rob Moseley
The wonders never ceased Saturday at Matthew Knight Arena.
There was nearly a full house on hand, for starters, as Oregon hosted USC and the athletic department held its "Appreciation Knight" in honor of donor Phil Knight. The Ducks, who have battled seasonlong issues on the defensive end, beat the Trojans 78-66 on the strength of 22 forced turnovers.
By the end, Oregon's typically stoic head coach, Dana Altman, even poked some fun at his own team, and said it was "the first time I've laughed in a month."
Such was Oregon's relief at winning at home for the first time in conference play this season, making the Ducks 15-6 overall and 3-6 in the Pac-12. With a season-high 11,178 fans in attendance, all clutching commemorative Phil Knight bobbleheads to mark the occasion, that meant 22,356 heads collectively nodding in appreciation of Oregon's victory to close out this season's first round of conference play.
"It's always important to get a win," UO senior Jason Calliste said. "Just the way we played is that much more satisfying."
Joseph Young set the defensive tone early for Oregon with four steals in the first eight minutes, as the Ducks took an early 13-12 lead. The Trojans fought back to a 38-34 halftime edge, but Oregon employed a pressing defense during an 18-2 second-half run, and USC never got closer than eight over the final 12 minutes.
The Ducks finished with 16 steals, an arena record and one short of the program's all-time high. Young's six steals also were an arena record, giving him 11 during the two-game homestand.
"There's a process to it," said Young, who also led Oregon with 21 points. "Each game we're getting better."
The Trojans (10-12, 1-8) scored quickly coming out of halftime to lead by six. It had echoes of Thursday night, when UCLA blitzed the Ducks out of the second-half gate in a two-point win; a USC victory would have put Oregon in a three-way tie for last place in the Pac-12, at 2-7.
But after the Trojans scored again to go up 42-38, they managed just one more field goal over the next 8:19. Oregon put together an 18-2 run that featured six USC turnovers, everything from a 10-second backcourt violation to Richard Amardi taking a charge under the basket.
"We understand the concept of defense now," Calliste said. "We're playing hard, and we're a unit now. We're playing as a unit now, where as before it felt like five separate people out there."
The Trojans shot 49 percent, the seventh Pac-12 opponent in nine games to shoot better than 45 percent against Oregon. But USC turned it over 22 times, the most by a UO opponent this season, helping the Ducks to a 19-4 edge in points off turnovers.
"It'll vary from game to game, but I hope we can use (the press) more," Altman said. "You've got to be careful about spreading your defense too much, but I hope in certain situations we can use it."
Along with Young's second straight big night offensively, Calliste stayed hot, hitting at least half his shots for the sixth straight game. He added 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting, and credited the hot streak to "hours of work," in his typically understated yet emphatic fashion.
But the Ducks got better secondary scoring Saturday than they enjoyed Thursday, when three starters were blanked. All nine guys scored against USC, with Mike Moser snapping out of a four-game stretch in which he shot .286 by contributing 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting.
Moser is now two points shy of 1,000 for his career.
"He had a game Thursday he'd like to forget; we all did," Altman said. "But he really got his head put back on and focused (Friday) in practice."
After the game, Altman expressed relief that Oregon has a rare Sunday off. He said he hopes his players can enjoy the Super Bowl amidst a season in which the TV schedule has dictated they play several Sunday games.
"I want those guys to be regular college students — sleep in and enjoy the game," he said. "With all the Sunday games we've had, that hasn't been possible."
And Altman even made a joke at his program's expense. On the heels of two players being suspended earlier this season for selling team apparel online, Altman quipped that he hoped none of them got their hands on one of the Phil Knight bobbleheads, "so we don't put any on eBay and sell them."
The assembled media joined Altman in laughter, prompting Altman's line about not having laughed like that in a month. Oregon's 2-6 record in January, featuring just one win in regulation, will do that to a coach.
But the calendar flipped over to February on Saturday, and perhaps that will signal a change in the Ducks' fortunes — particularly if they can defend future opponents the way they did in beating the Trojans.
NOTES: Young has led the team in scoring in 11 contests this season while scoring 20-plus points nine times. … Young went 9-of-9 from the charity stripe tonight. He has made 59-of-61 free-throw attempts in the past 11 games. … Calliste has scored in double figures in the past six games.