March 10, 2017 by Jacob Freedman
With a monumental win on the line, UCLA offered USC repeated opportunities to fly into the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night. The Trojans’ flight into Upset City, however, stayed grounded. After trailing by as many as 13 points in the second half, USC’s comeback effort fell one basket short in a 76-74 loss Thursday night in the Pac-12 Tournament Quarterfinals at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
The Trojans had multiple chances to tie or take the lead late. But even as an ice-cold Bruins squad missed seven of its last eight shots, a slew of unfortunate bounces and 50-50 officiating decisions, at least from the Trojans’ vantage point, left USC ultimately short.
Among the plays:
- A blocking foul called on Jonah Mathews after being backed into by UCLA’s TJ Leaf.
- An Elijah Stewart block that earned a late whistle with USC down two with 3:57 left.
- “The officiating doesn’t determine a game,” Enfield noted, citing a couple of calls he was less than enthused about. “In this case, we had a couple of calls go against us.”
- A missed front end of a 1-and-1 by Jordan McLaughlin (an 81.7 percent shooter at the line) with USC down 3.
- A following series of agonizing misses, six straight to be exact, in the dying minutes.
- The final miss: A tip-in try by Stewart in the final 30 seconds with USC down 3 that hit the back rim before landing in the hands of UCLA’s Bryce Alford, who promptly sank the clinching free throws. Bennie Boatwright hit a three with five ticks to go, but USC could not catch UCLA’s inbound pass and could only watch the clock strike midnight on their stay in the Pac-12 Tournament.
- “We were two points short,” Head Coach Andy Enfield said. “If one of those [shots] goes in and we don’t get those calls on the other end, maybe we have a chance to win in the last 30 seconds.”
McLaughlin led the Trojans with 18 points, including a crucial pair of contorting layups, reminiscent of a Cirque de Soleil masterpiece, that sliced the Bruins’ lead down to 5 with 6:48 left. A minute later, the team’s point guard and junior captain zoomed a half-court pass to a cutting Stewart for a jaw-dropping alley-oop to keep pace with the high-octane Bruins. Stewart added 17 points, his highest scoring effort since USC’s Jan. 22 win over Arizona State, including a pair of threes that fueled USC’s rally late in the opening half.
Chimezie Metu struggled on the offensive end, going 2-of-5 for 8 points to go along with 14 rebounds one night after leading all scorers with 24 against Washington. “USC can beat you a lot of different ways,” said UCLA head coach Steve Alford. “We did a really good job on Metu tonight. He never really got going.”
UCLA’s Isaac Hamilton led all scorers with 22 points, while Leaf pitched in 14 and Lonzo Ball put up a 12-6-5 line for the Bruins.
For the second night in a row, Enfield emphatically stumped for his team’s inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. Repeatedly citing the Trojans’ 24 wins and their 13-4 record in Bennie Boatwright’s absence, the head coach didn’t even address the possibility of his team missing the field of 68. “You saw tonight. You tell me. We’re a pretty good team. You don’t get 24 wins if you’re not a good team,” he said, followed by a citing of USC’s resume. “We’ve done our job. We expect to go to the NCAA Tournament next week.”
“I think we’ve done enough,” added freshman forward Nick Rakocevic.
Tripping Out Of The Blocks
After a spirited effort to close the first half, USC gave it all away in the opening minutes of the second frame. Down one with a chance to take the lead, De’Anthony Melton made a freshman mistake in letting his guard up to be pickpocketed by Bryce Alford. From there, UCLA took full advantage of the Trojans’ defensive awareness (or lack thereof) en route to a 12-0 run to push them ahead, 50-37.
Unfortunately, the Trojans went 2-for-2 in falling flat to start a half.
One night after Andy Enfield’s lament about the Pac-12’s late start times, the Trojans fell into an 8-0 hole after missing their first eight shots. The Trojans seemingly find themselves in double-digit deficits more than the Purple and Gold team down the street from Galen, and it took less than seven minutes tonight for lightning to strike again.
“Our starters have to do a better job or they won’t be starting any more,” a serious Enfield said.
The most encouraging night came from USC’s mercurial junior guard. After being benched four games ago for his on-court slump paired with a late arrival to practice, Stewart hit a series of tough shots to ignite a stagnating Trojan attack. “Elijah is always streaky,” said Enfield. “You saw a good side of Elijah tonight. When he plays like that, he can play with any guard in the league.”
Stewart’s tantalizing talent has always drawn oohs and aahs, with his alley-oop slam tonight being the perfect example. Consistency will always be the issue, but if the side of Stewart that showed off against UCLA rises to the occasion again, so does USC’s ceiling. “We’ve been good with each other for three years,” Stewart added on his relationship with Enfield. “I go through slumps, but I step up for him when I need to.”