Alex Stepheson ready to end three-year postseason drought

USC senior forward Alex Stepheson is funny, mild-mannered and smooth-speaking -- a guy who would probably find a fruitful future in sportscasting post-basketball if he were to seek it.

But he's no actor. What he says is what he means, with little room for confusion between the two.

So when he was asked this week after practice if he remembered the last postseason game he had played, his lack of an immediate answer was glaringly obvious.

"What was the last postseason game I played?" he repeated initially, delaying the answering process like you do when you don't want to admit to something.

"I think it was..." he began, before pausing and then starting again. "I think it was against Kansas, in the Final Four, in 2008," Stepheson finally said.

"They blew us out in the semifinal."

Blew us out is right. Kansas famously led Stepheson and the North Carolina Tar Heels 40-12 in the first half before the Heels made a huge comeback in the second, only to see the Jayhawks seal it in the final minutes and go on to win the national championship over a Derrick Rose-led Memphis squad two days later.

"It was a heartbreaking game," Stepheson says now, opening up about the subject a bit. "So I still have a bitter taste in my mouth from my last postseason experience, which was three years ago, and I’ll never let that go.

"I’m still holding onto it."

Stepheson played six minutes in the semifinal loss and was a key reserve for Roy Williams' Tar Heels that season. But, a month later, he announced he was transferring to be closer to his ailing father in Los Angeles, and, three months after that, he announced he was transferring to USC.

He applied for a hardship waiver -- which allows athletes to bypass the mandatory one-year sit-out period after transfers in cases involving familial issues -- from the NCAA, but it wasn't granted, so Stepheson had to spend the entire 2008-2009 season on the USC bench while his Trojan teammates made an eventual mini-Cinderella run from Pac-10 afterthought into the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Oh, and while he was sitting out, his former Tar Heel teammates went right out and won the national title.

Then, last season, with the Trojans on an eight-game win streak and on the brink of tourney bubble talk in early January, USC announced a self-ban from postseason play. Its season ended in early March after an Arizona road trip.

So, yes, that last postseason game -- more than 1,000 days and just under three years ago -- still holds some relevance for Stepheson as he finally readies to play in his first one since then Thursday against Cal (noon, Staples Center).

"It’s a different environment, a different atmosphere," Stepheson says now of postseason play. "I miss that feeling of win or go home, put everything into it in each game or your season’s over.

"I’m looking forward to that challenge."

It'll be a challenge, surely, with USC having to win at least the opener against Cal on Thursday to entertain thoughts of making the NCAA tournament and probably a second-round game against No. 16 Arizona on Friday too, then the final on Saturday against the UCLA/Washington/Washington State winner.

But it's not as if Stepheson hasn't faced similar challenges -- similar pressures, even -- before. He went to North Carolina, after all. The North Carolina.

"Coming from UNC, everybody expects you to make the tournament, to win a national championship every year," Stepheson said. " Coming from high expectations where you have to win and bringing that here – where, now, it’s still the same mindset, we have to win – it kind of helps me.

And it helps the team, too. Stepheson's top-level experience has been crucial for a team boasting only one other player who has played in a college postseason at a major level.

It'll help the Trojans even more if Stepheson's on top of his game. He has been. The 6-10, 250-pounder is averaging 11.7 points and 9.8 rebounds in his last six games, during which span the Trojans are 5-1. Add dominant low-post defense to the equation, and success is in the offing.

"I think Al’s played exceptionally well, especially of late," O'Neill said. "If you look at our stats, when he has double-doubles, we’re successful. Defensively, I thought in the last seven or eight games, Al was really effective. When he plays like he’s playing now, we have a chance to win games because he’s a defensive presence and a great presence on the boards."

O'Neill's right -- the Trojans are 10-1 when Stepheson records a double-double and just 8-12 when he doesn't. Of course, many of those games, too, came when he was injured at the start of the year and wore a brace on his fractured left hand. He was able to take the brace off shortly after the New Year as USC entered into the thick of Pac-10 play with a home game against UCLA.

His first game back healthy might have been his best of the year, a 13-point, 16-rebound output in what has become one of the Trojans' signature victories. He's healthy now, feeling good and ready to take on the potential challenges of three games in three days.

And he's used his missed postseasons as motivation.

"Last year, we had to sit out," Stepheson says. "I think that made us a little more hungry, a little more determined to try to prove a point this year. And, this year, we have a chance to play for it and we want to win the whole thing.

"Hopefully we can take advantage of the opportunities and try to win."

And, about that first question that initially tripped him up about his last postseason game, Stepheson later admitted his questioning-himself tactic was only to buy himself time.

"I remembered it right away," he said. "I tried to block it out. As soon as you brought it up, I'm like, 'I didn't end it like that, did I?'"

Well, it doesn't have to end like that anymore.