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March 18, 2007

Sweet 16 Bound

It took about 14 months, a different sport and an unlikely hero named Hackett, but USC finally exacted a bit of revenge against Texas for its Rose Bowl loss in January of 2006.

The Trojan basketball team used some hot shooting and a stifling defense to dominate the Longhorns on Sunday, 87-68, to move into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2002.

Troy also notched its school-record 25th victory of the season. USC will next play No. 1 seed North Carolina in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Friday night.

The Trojans were hot from the opening tip and, for a while, the most impressive freshman on the floor was not the highly-talented Kevin Durant of Texas, but the scrappy Daniel Hackett of USC.

Hackett got the scoring underway for the Trojans with a three-pointer and also added another score on a driving layup as USC forged an early 17-7 lead. Texas battled back, but by the time Hackett nailed another three with eight minutes to go in the first half, the Trojans were up by 12 before heading into the locker room with a 34-27 lead at the break.

Hackett went on to score a career-high 20 points, significantly negating the 30 poured in by Durant. The 6-5 Hackett also did a fine job guarding Durant in the first half, effectively harassing him despite giving up nearly four inches in height to the freshman phenom.

Overall, the Trojans dominated in a style reminiscent of their run to the Elite 8 in 2002, clicking from the start and never trailing in the game. They were disciplined and consistent and only had a few rough patches-from which they quickly recovered. As usual, Nick Young stepped up big time. The junior forward scored a team-high 22 points and hit clutch shot after clutch shot as USC led by as many as 20.

While Durant was his usual unstoppable self, the rest of the Texas team had a hard time getting untracked in the face of a Trojan pressure defense that forced the Longhorns into a lot of bad shots. A.J. Abrams added 20 points for Texas, but no other Longhorn managed more than six and that's where the game was won. Texas ended up shooting just .375 from the field.

Forward Taj Gibson had another excellent performance with 17 points and 14 rebounds. In two tournament games, he is averaging 17.5 points and 11 boards. The Trojans outrebounded Texas, 39-31, and attempted 38 free throws, making 27 of them.

Clearly, this is a USC team that has found its stride. It sports the kind of backcourt that can cause a lot of teams trouble in a tournament setting and the Trojan bench has stepped up to the challenge.

Things will be a bit tougher next Friday against No. 1 seed North Carolina. But for now, USC can sit back and enjoy its status as one of the top-16 teams in college basketball.

Player of the Game

Daniel Hackett-Nick Young led the team in scoring, but it was Hackett who keyed the early USC binge that put the Trojans in command of the game. The freshman scored a career-high 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting and added four rebounds. He also had a couple key steals to go with three assists.

The Turning Point

After cutting USC's lead to four (34-30) to begin the second half, Lodrick Stewart hit a jumper off a Hackett assist to start a 19-3 Trojan run-with Young scoring nine of those points-that put the game out of reach, 53-33, with 14 minutes to play.

Stat of the Game

Five USC players scored in double figures, as the Trojans featured a balanced attack that kept Texas on its toes the entire game. In the end, USC just had too many weapons firing at once and the result was a dominating win.

Looking Ahead

USC beat North Carolina at the Sports Arena last season, 74-59. Expect there to be a large contingent of Tar Heel fans at East Rutherford. However, the last time the Trojans played a stone's throw from New York, it did pretty well. Should be a great game and USC has its work cut out for it.

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