By Rich Ruben
The Trojans lost to Colorado in Boulder 70-66 in a game with a lot of story lines. SC did a lot of things very well, but tremendous shooting by CU and/or poor SC defense in the second half resulted in defeat. The Trojans battled all game. They led by as many as 10 in the first half, and were still up by 4 at halftime. After the break, the Buffs seemingly couldn’t miss, and they took the lead early in the second half and led by as many as 12. The Trojans closed to within 1 with a minute and a half left, but ultimately fell short and are now 19-8 on the season and 8-6 in conference play and in sixth place. The loss leaves the Trojans two games behind conference leading CU with only four regular season games left.
If there is such a thing as a “good loss,” then battling the number 18 team in the country on the road after losing big to them on February 1 at Galen would qualify. The Trojans shot the ball well, converting on 28-61 from the field and 8-10 from the line. SC did not commit many fouls; CU only had 8 free throw attempts. The Trojans limited their turnovers to only 9, and got big contributions from their best players, but in the end they didn’t do enough to win.
Let’s start with the good things the Trojans did. Onyeka Okongwu was back and made the most of his return. He finished with 21 points, sinking 10-13 shots. He only had 5 rebounds, but also got 4 steals and a block. Jonah Mathews made 7-11 shots for 17 points and also had 3 steals. Nick Rakocevic was 6-13 from the field along with 11 rebounds and 2 steals. And Daniel Utomi made 3-7 shots, most late in helping the Trojans to remain close; he finished with 10 points and 4 boards.
Still, SC didn’t do enough to win. CU made 8-14 from beyond the arc in the second half compared to SC’s 2-11 for the game. The Trojan perimeter defense let them down for one of the few times this year. Three different Buffs each made three shots beyond the arc, and Colorado only turned the ball over 3 times in the last 19 1/2 minutes of the game. They also had 16 assists on 27 made shots.
The Trojans had other problems besides second half defense. Starting point guard Ethan Anderson did not score. Elijah Weaver’s 4 points were the only points from the bench, and he made only 2-11 shots, though he added 4 assists. Isaiah Mobley was held scoreless, after a big weekend last week when Big O didn’t play. In his 18 minutes,, Isaiah only took 2 shots. The Trojans also had only 9 assists on their 28 basketsand were not able to get the ball into Big O often enough in the second half; he only had 2 shots in the last 14 minutes.
There are a couple of other disturbing stats from the game. First, the only points scored by players expected to return next year were Elijah’s two buckets. Rakocevic, Mathews and Utomi are seniors, and Big O is expected to be a high first round draft pick this Spring. The four combined for 62 of the team’s 66 points the rest of the team was a combined 2-17, 0-6 from three, with 8 rebounds.
The loss is the fourth in the last six games. Head coach Andy Enfield has been criticized for having poor records in February. Two thirds of the way through the month, the Trojans are struggling again in February.
There is a legitimate question about whether there is such a thing as a “good loss.” Isn’t every loss bad by definition? But this loss won’t hurt the Trojans NET ranking or the perception of the team and its season. Unfortunately, though, there have been too many of these close road losses in the last month. The double overtime loss at Oregon, the failed comeback at Arizona, the close loss at ASU, and now this.
On the flip side, there have not been many “good wins”. The win over LSU still looks impressive, but the wins at Nevada and TCU look less impressive today than in December because both of those teams have been struggling. The miracle win over Stanford doesn’t have the same shine as it did in mid January because the Cardinal have been in free fall since that game. The bottom line appears to be that several “good losses” don’t make up for the Trojans being unable to finish one of the close road games with a win.
SC is in an almost must win situation on Saturday afternoon in Salt Lake City. The Utes are tied for eighth place at 5-9 in conference play, but they are 10-2 at home this season They are a young team with one outstanding player in Timmy Allen. The Trojans won a close game over Utah on January 30.
To wrap up the regular season, SC hosts Arizona, a hot ASU team, and very hot UCLA. Most of the so-called experts had the Trojans in the NCAA field before this game, and it is unlikely this loss changes anything. To stay safely in the Tournament field, the Trojans likely need to win three of the final four games. It would also be very helpful to finish in the top four in the conference and get a first round bye in Las Vegas, though it might take four more wins to get that bye. The three teams that SC hosts to close out the season are all ahead of the Trojans in the standings, which provides SC with major opportunities. A win on Saturday would be a good start to closing out February and the first few days of March.