By Rich Ruben
Once again, a USC guard wearing a No. 2 jersey beat UCLA with a last-second three pointer.
Last season’s final game at Galen against the Bruins was won by the Trojan guard wearing the No. 2 jersey, as USC’s Jonah Mathews made a three with one second left to clinch the season sweep of the Bruins. Today was even more remarkable, as this year’s No. 2, Tahj Eaddy, did the honors. Last year the Trojans called a timeout after a UCLA free throw gave the Bruins a two point lead and USC ran a designed play with the ball in Jonah’s hands. He had the option to get the ball inside if Onyeka Okongwu was open after a high screen or to take a shot off the screen, depending on how the Bruins defended the play. Great design and pressure three.
Today the Trojans trailed the entire game. After a Bruin miss on the front end of a one and one the Trojans came up court down two. USC didn’t have a timeout and tried to find a shot on the fly. After a collision that appeared to be a foul on the Bruins was not called, the Trojans inbounded the ball from their offensive baseline with three seconds left. Ethan Anderson looked for a lob to Evan Mobley on a tough angle but it was well defended and after it seemed like Ethan was flirting with a five second call, he found Tahj Eaddy in the corner. Eaddy hit a three with one second left for the 64-63 win. History can repeat itself. The Trojans took their only lead with one second left.
The Trojans complete the regular season 21-6 and 15-5 in the Pac 12. Depending on the result of tomorrow’s Oregon – Oregon State game USC will finish either first or second in the league. The win gives Enfield a 4-0 record against Mick Cronin.
This win had all of the drama of a post season contest and was improbable in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start. Maybe it was the Bruins leading 20-7 at the 11:23 mark and no Trojan other than the Mobley brothers had scored. Perhaps USC scoring only 25 points in the half and being down by 11. Could be that the Bruins made 4-6 threes in the half and the Trojans were 0-6. Or maybe it was so improbable because Tahj struggled with his shot all game and before the game winner had made only 4-13 shots and 1-6 from three for 9 points. Or perhaps it was improbable because UCLA was undefeated at home this season and had an 18 game home winning streak.
This win will be long remembered for the terrific comeback and for how the Trojans refused to give up or accept defeat. When asked how the results this season compared to his thinking before the first game coach Enfield said the staff didn’t make any preseason predictions. “If you had told us before the season that we would finish 21-6 and 15-5 we would have taken it…. 21-6 represents an amazing effort by the players to develop as a team.” He went on to say that they were picked to finish sixth by the media and had seven new players, implying that theTrojand exceeded other people’s expectations.
Each team played without one starter. Isaiah White did not play and his status for the post season is unknown. The Bruins played without leading scorer Johnny Juzang which was a game time decision. The Bruins started freshman big Mac Etienne in place of Juzang to try to match the Trojans’ size. USC started Max Agbonkpolo to help on the defensive end and both players contributed for their respective teams. I thought the Bruins would try to make the Trojans play small and try to force USC to play with only one big. Instead Cronin decided to try to match the Trojans’ inside strength rather than take advantage of their own.
Enfield said: “This is a terrific win for our basketball team. We had trouble stopping them but we played so hard over the last thirty minutes.”
UCLA Was Very Good On Offense, Especially In The First Half
The Bruins started making shots right away. They sank five of their first six shots including two threes by Jaime Jaquez. The Bruins made 15-25 (60%) of their first half shots against what has been a very good USC defense. In the half David Singleton made 3-4 shots and 2-2 from three; Jaquez connected on 3-4 first half shots including 2-3 from three; and Tyger Campbell made 3-7 from the floor.
The USC defense was much better in the second half, holding UCLA to 27 points. For the game the Bruins made 26-51 shots; surprisingly they only took nine three pointers, making five, and sank a very mediocre 6-11 from the line. Instead of having their shooters try to beat the Trojans outside as they did in the first half UCLA settled for mid range shots. The Bruins played at a deliberate pace all game in an effort to stop Trojan fast breaks and to try to set their defense before the Trojans crossed mid court and that was successful for much of the game.
UCLA had very balanced scoring, which has been their trademark all season. Jules Bernard finished with 11 points, Cody Riley 10, Jaquez 12, and Campbell and Singleton both had 11. Enfield said the Bruins have very good shot makers at all five positions and they were making their shots. He added: “We haven’t been in a lot of one possession games in the last minute and UCLA had been in several of these games.” Tahj said the Bruins didn’t do anything exotic in terms of their scheme. “It was about guarding your man.”
The Trojans Started Very Slowly On Offense
The Trojans were behind 24-16 before someone other than the three bigs scored. Tajh finally made a shot at at the 3:14 mark; only four Trojans scored in the half. USC made 10-24 (41%) first half shots and were 0-6 from three. Evan made three of his four first half shots and grabbed 5 rebounds. Both Tahj and Drew Peterson were 1-5 at the break. The guards and wings were a collective 3-14.
Early in the second half Tahj sank the Trojans’ first three of the game at the 18:42 mark. There was a stretch where several calls or non calls went against the Trojans and hindered their efforts to get some momentum. On one play Isaiah had the ball at the top of the key and pivoted with the ball; I don’t recall ever seeing a player with the ball called for an illegal screen.
It was that kind of game most of the afternoon. USC couldn’t stop the Bruins, the outside shot was not there and the officials were not helping. The Trojans had their usual problems at the foul line, making 10-20. They also struggled from beyond the arc (4-16). Several times this season free throw problems or inconsistent outside scoring came close to or did doom the Trojans and this looked like one of those games.
The Trojans shot the ball much better in the second half out scored the Bruins by 12. They made 25-53 (47%) shots in the game and cut down their turnovers to only four after the break. Evan led USC making 6-10 shots and scoring 13 points with a game high 11 rebounds. Chevez made 4-5 from the floor and 4-8 from the line for 12 points and Drew added 10. Tahj finished with 12 points including the biggest shot of the season so far.
If you were told before the game that the Bruins would make 51% of their shots and 55% from three, and that Evan and Tahj would combine for only 25, it would have been hard to envision a Trojan win.
USC started the second half 9-13 from the floor and closed to 47-45 with 11:49 left, but the Bruins quickly increased the lead to 57-50. With 2:31 left Drew hit a huge three to cut the lead to 61-60. The Trojans didn’t score for two minutes and trailed 63-60 with 39 seconds left. Chevez made a difficult shot and helped set the stage for the final three seconds.
In commenting on Tahj’s struggles Enfield noted that Tahj missed four or five open looks.
“Our guards need to make shots. We can’t win many games without making (outside) shots,” Enfield said.
He added that making foul shots is a concern.
“We need our big guys to shoot free throws. We’re expecting a lot of close games coming up,” Enfield said.
Tahj added: “We didn’t really play well in this game. To find a way to get it done is really special.” He said that as his scoring has increased over the last several weeks teams have been giving him more attention. On his game winner he said: “It’s special to do it in a USC uniform against UCLA. I understand what this rivalry is about even though I’ve only been here one year.”
The Game Winner
“The shot felt really good,” Eaddy said. “Ethan hit me on time and right into my pocket…. At an early age I learned to have a short memory (after missing a shot). My confidence will never waiver.”
Enfield described the final possession from his vantage point: “With no timeouts, after the missed free throw I was just like you, watching.”
More From Enfield
Enfield talked about how important his assistants have been this year: “Jason Hart and Chris Capko have been with me for eight years. I can’t always be the bad guy and we take turns.”
He gave them both a lot of credit for game plans this season and said they and Eric Mobley made key suggestions during this win.
“This team can win some games in the NCAA Tournament, but we have had some games where we haven’t made shots,” Enfield said.
It is apparent to me that to win in March they will need Evan and Tahj to score and another player or two to have better than average games scoring the ball. But there can always be an exception like today.
In this craziest season the concern about Covid will heighten as the team moves into post season play. Enfield said that they will be in quarantine in Las Vegas and Indianapolis. There are thirty four or five people in the USC traveling party and they will remain totally isolated. His family is not going to Las Vegas and though they are going to the NCAA Tourney he won’t see them or spend any time with them. There will be very strict measures to prohibit contact with anybody outside the USC group.
This season has been an amazing ride. The Trojans first game next week will be on Thursday; the opponent depends on whether USC finishes first or second in the conference and on the result of first round games on Wednesday. They may play Oregon State or Stanford in the first game, but it remains to be determined. If the Trojans win their Thursday game, absent an upset they will play either Colorado or UCLA on Friday. UCLA is locked into fourth and Colorado third.
I don’t want to spread anxiety over how the conference has decided to determine the regular season champion. If Oregon wins tomorrow they will have one less loss than USC and one less win and one of the two games they didn’t play was at UCLA. The Trojans handily beat the Ducks a couple of weeks ago. This seems ridiculous; in my opinion the Trojans are the champions.
The NET rankings have not been updated to include today’s games. The Ken Pom rankings are updated after each game is concluded and after most of Saturday’s games going final the Trojans are 15th and Colorado is 16th. Oregon will move up or down from its current 37th depending on tomorrow’s game. The Bruins are now 42nd and like the Trojans could move a spot or two in either direction depending on Saturday night and Sunday’s games. The conference tournaments will also impact the final rankings.
I believe the four Pac-12 leaders have been under ranked in the AP poll and in Lunardi’s brackets most of the season. In eight days we’ll find out where everyone lands. But most importantly, The Trojans Are Going Dancing! Congrats to everyone associated with this team; it has been a great season. Almost unbelievably it is possible the Trojans can match their best ever win total of 26 this season with four fewer regular season games. Wouldn’t that be something!