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March 10, 2007

Trojans Advance to Finals

It's hard to beat a team three times in the same season.

But it's even harder to beat a team that catches fire from 3-point range like it unlocked a cheat code in NBA Jam.

USC advanced to the championship game of the Pacific-10 Conference tournament behind a scorching career-high 26 points from Gabe Pruitt, beating No. 11 Washington State, 71-60, on Friday night at the Staples Center.

Pruitt hit 6-of-7 3-pointers - the best long-distance shooting percentage in Pac-10 tournament history - and Taj Gibson provided an inside presence with 15 tough points on 9-of-11 shooting from the line.

The Trojans made 10-of-16 3-pointers, even though they only shot 47.4 percent from the field.

"In warm-ups I was feeling it," Pruitt said. "I knew if I got open early I would knock it down."

The win helped USC (23-10, 11-7) avenge two regular-season losses to Washington State (25-7, 13-5) by a combined five points. The Trojans will go for their third win of the year over No. 16 Oregon at 3 p.m.

"I hope you're feeling it tomorrow," Floyd said to Pruitt.

The Trojans pulled away from the Cougars even though first-round tournament star Nick Young failed to score a point in the second half. He finished with just 10 points, but Washington State could not make up any ground because it shot just 25 percent from the field in the second half.

"I thought our guys really took the losses from the film session and brought it to the floor," Floyd said.

USC held post nemesis Aron Baynes to just five points a week after he scored a career-high 25. The Trojans collapsed so well on Baynes the Cougars forced up 30 3-pointers, making just 36.7 percent of them.

"Baynes looked like Bill Walton up in Pullman against us," Floyd said.

USC never gave up its four-point halftime lead, but Washington State grabbed 14 offensive rebounds to stay close.

It took a Keith Wilkinson offensive rebound and tip in with one minute left to ice the game. The bucket gave USC a 63-55 lead. Washington State never got closer than seven the rest of the way.

"Maybe we can be considered a No. 3 or 4 seed if we win tomorrow," Floyd said. "We've still got a long way to go with this program. Beating Stanford was big because none of these guys had won in the Pac-10 tournament."

Washington State chipped away at an 11-point deficit with a 9-2 run to close the first half. Derrick Low gave the Cougars momentum when he sank a double-clutched 3-pointer to beat the halftime buzzer and make it just 38-34.

After taking a 3-2 lead, USC had a stretch where eight of its next 10 baskets were 3-pointers. The only exceptions during that streak were three free throws after Gabe Pruitt was fouled shooting a 3-pointer and a long jumper by Lodrick Stewart.

"We talked at halftime about how we thought that was fool's gold," Floyd said. "We showed that toward the end of the half because we missed a couple of 3-pointers and they made a little run on us."

Pruitt made 4-of-5 3-pointrs in the first half and led all scorers with 15 points, including one spurt when he made three straight.

"We were just hanging on for dear life during one stretch in the first half," Washington State coach Tony Bennett said.

The Trojans shot 8-of-12 from 3-point range in the first half, but the Cougars took away those opportunities early in the second half. Taj Gibson kept the offense going when Washington State took away the perimeter, scoring 10 straight points.

"We wanted to tell our guys not to take 3-pointers in the second half and to get it in to the post," Floyd said. "We wanted to get ourselves to the line and beat them to the one-and-ones. We wanted that to be our 3-pointer in the second half."

Washington State was almost as effective from the outside early, hitting 5-of-11 3-pointers in the opening half. Low led the Cougars with 3-of-4 deep ones for nine points. But he cooled off in the second half, hitting just 2-of-10 deep shots in the second half.

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