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Trojans can’t overcome first-half struggles in loss to Beavers

By Rich Ruben

USC lost a very winnable game 58-56 to an outmanned Oregon State team on Tuesday night. The Trojans has been flirting with disaster in several recent games but were able to pull out wins until tonight. The problems that have recently plagued the team sunk the Trojans in a game that may look more important as the season winds down. In this Pac-12 season it is crucial not to lose to second division teams. In empty areas, a split on the road is not good enough.

This loss will be hard to accept and should never have happened. I’ve openly wondered if poor free throw shooting would cost USC a game or two and it finally did. OSU has been good from the foul line this season and they were again against USC, connecting on 12-of-14. The Trojans have struggled all season and made only 10-of-18. On a night when both teams were 20-of-48 from the field and they both made 6 threes, the missed free throws lost the game. 

It might be easy to look no further than the foul line for the reason, but there are other issues that contributed to the loss; fixing any of them would have provided enough to win. USC is now 11-3 on the season and 5-2 in the conference and travel to play Stanford on Thursday afternoon.  A loss to the Cardinal would seriously impact the Trojans’ conference standing and national ranking.

USC had an opportunity to tie or win on the final possession but did not run the final play effectively and didn’t get a good shot. If the last possession looked familiar, substitute Evan Mobley for Onyeka Okongwu and Drew Peterson for Jonah Mathews and it’s the same play they ran to beat UCLA last season in what turned out to be the final game of the year. This time they had much more time on the clock but didn’t execute.

USC Wasted A Good Start And Struggled In The First Half

After three minutes the Trojans led 8-0 and at the under-16 minute break the Beavs were 1-of-9 from the floor and the Trojans led in rebounds 7-0. At that point it appeared that the game would be a rout. But from that point the Trojans couldn’t score for long stretches in the half and fell behind 13-12 at the 9:00 mark and had 7 turnovers in the first twelve minutes.

They continued to play poorly in the final minutes of the half and a late three by OSU gave the Beavers a 31-23 lead at the break. In the first half the Trojans missed all nine of their threes, half of their ten foul shots and made only 9 of 25 shots. Oregon State got hot in the last six minutes of the half and went to the break having made 12-of-28 shots (43%) and 4-of-9 from three with only four turnovers. Evan Mobley had 6 points on 3-6 from the field and 9 rebounds in the half.

Coach Enfield took longer than usual to get to the post game media conference, likely taking extra time in the locker room. He described his team’s play in the first half: “Our playmaking really struggled and we turned the ball over too many times in the first half… The ball was sticking too long with the bigs inside and we missed too many good shots.”

USC Played Much Better In The Second Half

On the first possession after the break Drew Peterson couldn’t get the ball to Evan and turned it over. On the second possession Drew made the team’s first three of the game. The next time down the court Drew was called for an offensive foul and on the fourth possession he scored in the lane. Within the first three minutes of the half Drew had two offensive fouls, one other turnover and all five of the Trojan points. His three minutes are a good summary of the game; the Trojans couldn’t string good offensive or defensive possessions together. The Trojans closed to 45-43 with 10:04 left, scoring 20 points in the first ten minutes of the half. They took the lead a couple of times but the Trojans scored only 13 more points. Enfield thought the offense was much more fluid in the second half and he noted that the turnovers were down. He pointed to the Trojans making 6 threes in 11 attempts, but there were still dry spells.

Drew committed a very bad foul on a three point shot and Ethan Anderson missed the front end of a one and one in the final few minutes. With 2:19 left Evan converted a dunk to tie the game at 56. Those were the final Trojan points.

The Final Possession

I recently speculated that if the Trojans needed to score late in a game the ball would be in Drew’s hands and he would have the option to look for Evan, attack the rim, or take a shot from the perimeter. Enfield described the play he set up for the last possession: “We put our shooters in the corners (Tahj Eaddy and Noah Baumann) and had Drew come off a high ball screen by Evan. We had a lob over the top to Evan but Drew didn’t see it. Drew did get the ball to Evan inside but Evan didn’t try to score, passing it back out to Drew. He received the ball with 6 1/2 seconds left but fumbled the ball and didn’t get a good shot. We simply didn’t execute.”

There Were Other Problems Besides Free Throws

The Trojans had a big advantage inside but they didn’t capitalize. Evan did not have an official shot in the first 13 minutes of the second half. He drew a foul on his first attempt of the half with under ten minutes left and made the two free throws. He finished with only two more shots and 5-8 for the game and 13 rebounds.

It has been a continual problem for the Trojans to get shots for Evan. Enfield has said after a few games that Evan is making the right plays and passing it out when he is double teamed, but there seems to be more to the story. In the first half when the team couldn’t make an outside shot Evan took six shots. In the second half when threes were falling for the Trojans and the defenders had to be more concerned with the perimeter shooters Evan only had two shots.

Ethan Anderson played 21 minutes, mostly in the second half and he had assists on Evan’s two second half baskets. He ran the offense much better than the other ball handlers and finished with a made three on four shots, 2-of-3 from the line (though his miss was huge), two rebounds, four assists and only one turnover. As expected his minutes came primarily from Noah Baumann and Isaiah White.

Ethan’s play didn’t get more shots for Evan. Enfield said that “Ethan had a good feel for the game” and that they needed his playmaking. It’s hard to tell if Evan is not establishing himself well and often enough inside or the guards aren’t getting him the ball where he can score but the Trojans are clearly wasting their best asset.

The other bigs weren’t get shots either. Isaiah Mobley took only 5 shots (2-for-5) and Chevez Goodwin was 3-for-3. The Trojans aren’t taking advantage of their size and athleticism inside and Ethan’s return to almost regular duty didn’t change that fact. This needs to be fixed.

The Trojan Defense Has Regressed

For the third game in a row the Trojan’s opponent made over 40% of its shots. The stifling defense isn’t playing as well as earlier in the season. Tighter defense would have won the game regardless of missed free throws. Drew did a good job defending Beaver leading scorer Ethan Thompson. Thompson finished with 13 points and made only one three. Drew was on the bench for stretches in the second half presumably because of his 5 turnovers. Max Agbonkpolo had Thompson when Drew was on the bench and although Max was not as effective the Trojans played Thompson well enough to win.

The surprising offensive star for OSU was 7’1” senior Roman Silva who made 6-of-7 from the field. Silva came into the game averaging 3.4 points in 9 1/2 minutes a game. He is a big body and overpowered Chevez Goodwin and to a lesser extent Isaiah Mobley. The Trojans didn’t use Evan against Silva to try to slow him down. In the latter minutes Silva wasn’t a factor but he put the Beavs in a position to win.

About Those Free Throws

After the game Enfield addressed the season long poor foul shooting. He made the point that the team overall has been ok from the line but Isaiah Mobley and Chevez Goodwin have struggled. It might be more accurate to say that the other players haven’t been too bad and that the two big men have really struggled. Going into the game Evan was 53-for-78 (68%), Tahj 29-for-37 (78%), Drew 29-for-41 (71%), Isaiah White 36-for-53 (68%), and Max 16-for-24 (67%). At best these numbers are on the low end of acceptable.

Isaiah Mobley and Chevez really struggle. Isaiah is 23-for-49 (46%) and Chavez 13-for-27(48%). They are two of the three players in the front court rotation and in close games they can become a liability and can’t touch the ball unless they have an open dunk or layup. Isaiah had the same problem from the line last season; his misses are almost all long. Enfield said Isaiah’s form has been improving and perhaps it has but the results have not.

And One

The Trojans will get ready for Stanford knowing they let a game get away. Stanford hasn’t been playing to the potential of its roster but that could change anytime. The best player is 6’9” senior forward Oscar da Silva and he has been scoring and rebounding at a very high level this season. If Roman Silva can make 6 of 7 shots inside, the Trojans should worry about what da Silva can do. 

The recent Trojan problems were under the microscope against the Beavers: very poor foul shooting; the inability to get Evan enough shots; turnovers; inconsistent outside shooting; and declining defense. The missed free throws stand out in the box score but a better performance in any of these areas would have won the game. Fixing a few of these problems would have resulted in a double digit win.

In each of the Trojans’ three losses they have been unable to score in the closing minutes. They can rightly say that they were in the UConn and Colorado games and these are good teams. The loss to UConn will likely look worse as the season goes on; their best player was recently injured and is out for the year. USC gets another shot at CU and they should believe they have better personnel than the Buffs, especially with Ethan back to defend against McKinley Wright.

The loss to OSU is much harder to rationalize; in fact it can’t be explained away. USC is good but they have to come ready to play forty minutes every night. The problem areas are obvious and the staff and players need to make adjustments in order to have the second half of the season they expect. Before today Joe Lunardi listed USC as one of the teams with an 80% or more probability to make the NCAA field. If the Trojans come home with two losses they put a lot of pressure on themselves for the rest of the season.