Thursday, March 10, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Julian Jacobs dropped his hips, shuffled his feet and rolled his shoulders as he watched Katin Reinhardt knock down a 3-point shot he set up.
USC opening an early double-digit lead over rival UCLA in an eventual 95-71 victory at MGM Grand Garden Arena in the first round of the Pac-12 Conference Tournament was a cause for celebration for its point guard.
“At the end of the day, it’s basketball and you’ve got to have fun,” Jacobs said. “And I was having a ball.”
Most of the Trojans’ season has been a ball for the former Desert Pines High star. As a junior, he’s averaging a conference-leading 5.4 assists per game.
On Monday, he became the first USC player in five years to earn first-team All Pac-12 honors. On Wednesday, he all but assured the program would make its first NCAA Tournament in the same span by sparking USC to a third victory over UCLA in the same season for the first time since 1954.
“The coaches did a good job of establishing a desperate mentality with the NCAA Tournament bid on the line,” Jacobs said. “They really emphasized this week coming out with energy and playing a full 40 minutes. My job is to get these guys rolling.”
USC will play Utah at 6:15 tonight for a berth in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. The opponent is the school Jacobs was originally slated to attend, and could have conceivably switched back to.
He committed to the Trojans in the fall of his senior year at Desert Pines while Kevin O’Neill was the coach. O’Neill would get fired before the end of the season, leaving Jacobs anxious for months to find out who USC would hire next until Andy Enfield was announced.
“I was super relieved because he was coming off that huge tournament run with Florida Gulf Coast and the styles matched,” Jacobs said.
As if coach and point guard hadn’t proven their compatibility enough this season, it was evident against the Bruins. Jacobs pushed the game to the teetering-on-insane pace Enfield preaches from the opening seconds.
He rushed to the corner and made a 3-pointer on the first possession, and two minutes later had gotten to the free-throw line to convert two attempts, recorded an assist and extended a possession with an offensive rebound. The energy from Jacobs — who finished with 11 points, nine assists and five rebounds — gave USC an 11-0 lead and set a tone they wouldn’t lose the rest of the night.
“He’s become a big-time leader for us,” Enfield told the Los Angeles Times earlier in the season.
Jacobs cited his coach’s patience in his first two years as the reason. He started as both a freshman and sophomore on teams that struggled, going a combined 23-41 overall and 5-31 in the Pac-12.
It was difficult to adjust to losing coming off winning a state championship as a senior in high school. Jacobs said nothing in his career had matched the elation of the 2013 state-championship game, when he guided Desert Pines to erasing a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit against rival Clark, until USC’s win over Arizona earlier this year.
He played 53 minutes, scoring 18 points and dishing nine assists, in the 103-101 quadruple overtime victory against the Wildcats. Jacobs continues to draw motivation from that victory and the state championship with USC poised for a chance at more success.
He wants new reasons to dance.
“I wanted to be a part of something that could turn the corner, be a part of an upcoming program,” Jacobs said. “Now it’s coming to fruition, and there’s no better feeling.”