February 21, 2016 by Jacob Freedman
Lightning didn’t strike twice in one week for USC with second-half comebacks, as the Trojans had no answer for Utah big man Jakob Poeltl in a 80-69 loss at Galen Center Sunday afternoon. The Utes led the entire game, and while USC cut it to 49-44 midway through the second half, the Trojans’ couldn’t put forth a consistent offensive run to gain any more ground on the Utes.
The loss is the Trojans’ first of the season at home, snapping USC’s 16-game winning streak at the Galen Center dating back to last season. Sophomore guard Jordan McLaughlin led the Trojans (19-8, 8-6 in Pac-12) with 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting, while freshman forward Bennie Boatwright and junior guard Julian Jacobs chipped in 17 apiece. Poeltl was flat-out unstoppable, going for 29 points and 13 rebounds on 11-of-13 shooting.
Pummeled By Poeltl
Jakob Poeltl is on the short list for Pac-12 Player of the Year, and was somehow even more dominant than his 29-13 line. The Trojans doubled, and even occasionally triple-teamed the big man with little success, with Utah’s quick-strike backcourt finding ways to feed the 7-footer over the Trojans’ overmatched frontcourt.
Junior forward Nikola Jovanovic often wasn’t strong enough to handle Poeltl’s mix of power and precision, while forward Chimezie Metu’s raw defensive abilities showed their flaws as the freshman frequently lost Poeltl in the paint or bit on the big man’s nimble fakes down low. “He’s a pro if I’ve ever seen one,” Jacobs said about the Austrian big man after the game. “He absolutely dominated us. We didn’t have any answers. It was the Jakob Poeltl show.” The Utes came into Sunday leading the Pac-12 in shooting 49.6 percent from the field, and only improved their figure with a 53.6 percent clip against the Trojans.
The Trojans’ gameplan, where USC played half-court for a majority of the game rather than a run-and-gun pace, played right into Utah’s center-focused approach. The Trojans blazed their hot start this year with a frenetic pace, and will need to establish the tempo against slow-paced Cal and Stanford squads on their Bay Area trip in order to find their second Pac-12 win outside of Los Angeles.
The Trojans went into Sunday third in the Pac-12 in assists, but mustered only 12 to Utah’s 23 after notching just nine against Colorado on Wednesday. The Trojans made noticeably fewer passes on their offensive possessions, often choosing for 1-on-1 situations to mixed results at best. Jacobs picking up two quick fouls to start the game didn’t help matters, as the point guard only played nine first-half minutes. “I thought the first half especially, when our rotation was different because of foul trouble, we got stagnant a bit,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “The ball was sticking too much… and we had some turnovers that were much on us than were on Utah.”
The lack of ball movement also reflected in the free throw disparity, as the Trojans didn’t attempt a free throw in the first 25:41 of game time. “We would like to get to the line a little more,” Enfield said. USC finished 3-of-6 from the charity stripe, while the Utes went 11-of-15.
Stumbling Out Of The Gates
After going with the ‘build a large lead and hold on for dear life’ strategy early on in Pac-12 play, USC’s M.O. has been starting slow in the last three games. The Trojans struggled to contain Poeltl in the opening half, with the 7-footer showing off an array of hook shots and lay-ins to the tune of 16 first-half points. Apart from Jordan McLaughlin’s spot-up three in the game’s opening moments, the Trojans didn’t lead for the entire half and ultimately the rest of the game. “I don’t know why we come out flat and wait until the second half to turn it up,” a visibly dismayed Jacobs said. “Maybe we like to play catch-up. I don’t know.”
Throw Them A Zone
USC’s switching to a zone defense midway through the second half ignited the Trojans’ comeback on Wednesday against Colorado, but the Trojans’ switch didn’t bear fruit as well against the Utes. Enfield made the switch about five and a half minutes into the game to combat Poeltl, but the big man scored a layup on the first possession after the change. From there, the Utes went 4-of-10 on three-pointers to close the half after starting 1-of-6, and held the Trojans at bay for the rest of the half to stretch their lead to 14. USC oscillated between zone and man in the second half, leaning more toward the former, but an inability to limit Poeltl’s effectiveness in not just scoring but also creating opportunities for his Ute teammates on the perimeter proved costly.
For the first time this season, players openly addressed the obvious fact that USC is right in the thick of things in contention for a NCAA Tournament bid. “The coaches talked about how today was a must-win for us as far as tourney projections,” Jacobs said when asked about USC’s tourney hopes. “It’s imperative that we win out. That’s our goal.”
The Trojans rank No. 24 in RPI, and were slated as a No. 6 seed on CBSSports’ Bracketology before Sunday’s loss. USC remains on track for an at-large bid, but an 0-2 record on the upcoming Bay trip will put some worry into a Trojans team that was ranked in the Top 25 just seven days ago.
As far as Pac-12 implications, the Trojans will drop into fifth place in the Pac-12 if California holds on in a Sunday evening road tilt against Washington State. The Trojans are now two games behind Arizona, Oregon and Utah in the win column in the Pac-12, making next Sunday’s tilt in Berkeley critical in the race for a first-round bye in the conference tournament. It’ll be an uphill battle for USC, as California is 16-0 at Haas Pavilion this season.