March 3, 2018 by Jacob Freedman
It started with cheers and tears, but ended with an 8-clap. On a rousing Senior Night for program mainstays Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart, USC (21-10, 12-6 in Pac-12 play) started fast but wilted down the stretch in a 83-72 loss to the crosstown UCLA Bruins (20-10, 11-7).
Aaron Holiday dominated from the jump en route to a career-high 34 points, while Jordan McLaughlin’s 19 points weren’t enough to help the Trojans avoid a season sweep at the hands of UCLA. Chimezie Metu added 16 points and 10 rebounds, his 10th double-double of the season. The loss snapped the Trojans’ four-game winning streak.
Even with Jaylen Hands sidelined with an injury, UCLA’s guard duo of Aaron Holiday and Kris Wilkes had their way with the Trojan defenses for most of the night. Holiday’s 34 points came on 11-of-16 shooting, including 6 three-pointers, while Wilkes had 22 of his own.
Holiday had his way driving to the basket, while the Trojans struggled to keep up with the shifty junior on the perimeter. While Jordan McLaughlin excelled in his own right on Senior Night, Holiday was the battle of point guards. “He’s one of the best guards in the United States,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said following the loss. “We tried to trap him off ball screens and he split ball screens. He leads the league in scoring and showed why he’s doing not.”
In his two games against the Trojans, Holiday combined for 57 points on 18-of-26 shooting, including 11-of-16 on three-pointers. Basketball is a team game, but Holiday was the best player on the floor in both bouts against the Trojans this year.
The Trojans shot just 32.3 percent in the second half, while the three-point shots never landed in either half (26.3% for the game). After taking a 60-54 lead with 12:03 to go, the Trojans proceeded to go 6:44 without a field goal as UCLA went on a 16-3 run to take a 9-point lead they would not relinquish. UCLA finished the game on a 29-12 run in the final 12 minutes.
“We missed a lot of open threes and shots at the rim,” Enfield said. “We’ll give UCLA credit because they outplayed us the last 10 minutes.”
The pregame festivities on Saturday proved emotional for McLaughlin and Stewart. After the pair endured a three-win Pac-12 campaign (12-20 overall) during their freshman years, the Trojans have combined for 68 total wins in the past three seasons. McLaughlin now holds the school record with 4,098 career minutes, while Stewart tied Dwight Lewis with his 133rd game played as a Trojan. McLaughlin also moved to sixth on the Pac-12’s all-time assists list.
Although a loss to UCLA might have been the worst way to end illustrious Trojan careers, both leave a legacy in turning the Trojans from a Pac-12 bottom-feeder into a yearly conference contender.
Teetering Tourney Hopes
For the second year in a row, the Trojans head into the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas needing at least one win and possibly more to feel safe about their NCAA Tournament hopes. The Trojans rank 31st in the RPI rankings, but also lack high-end victories that can be the difference come Selection Sunday.
Enfield made the Trojans’ case following the game, stating how the Trojans’ ability to sweep both the Mountain schools (Colorado, Utah) and the Oregon schools on the road is a feat rarely, if ever, accomplished in Pac-12 play. Although USC’s second-place finish in the Pac-12 does not lock them into the NCAAs, Enfield also noted the strength of the Pac-12 in referring to likely (as of Saturday) tournament team Arizona State finishing tied for eighth in the conference.
McLaughlin had a shorter remark on the subject: “We just worry about winning games. That’s all.”
What Happens in Vegas…
Will be crucial for the Trojans’ postseason hopes. The Trojans locked up a first-round bye for the first time since the conference expanded to 12 teams, and will face the winner of Washington and Oregon State next Thursday, March 8, at 6:00pm PT. If the Trojans advance to the Pac-12 Semifinals, they would likely face Oregon and Utah, teams the Trojans both swept in the regular season.
“This year, any team is vulnerable,” added Stewart, who finished with 12 points in his final contest at the Galen Center. “Everyone straps on their shoes the same way.”
In its final home game of the year, the Trojans saw their first Galen Center sellout of the season. The Trojans’ last sell-out before Saturday night was 2017’s showdown against UCLA, which the Trojans won 84-76 over a Top 10 Bruins squad.