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Trojans fight back but lose in last three seconds

By Rich Ruben

It’s hard to know where to begin when analyzing this 72-70 loss. If any one aspect of the game on a very long list played out differently, the Trojans would be getting ready to play surprise finalist Oregon State for the tournament championship. An abbreviated list includes: USC got off to a very poor start and trailed 20-7 midway through the first half; only four Trojans scored in the first half and Evan Mobley’s 17 points kept USC in the game; USC was called for a flagrant foul and a technical foul and the resulting free throws more than covered the margin between victory and defeat; the Trojans missed half of their twelve free throws; Tahj Eaddy didn’t score until only 3:52 was left in the game.

There is more: CU out rebounded the Trojans by eight in the second half and had seven more offensive rebounds; the USC guards and wings passed up several open perimeter shots and instead tried to drive or pass to a teammate who wasn’t open; USC had only four fouls when the Buffs got the ball in a tie game with 33 seconds left but chose not to intentionally foul; and finally, USC ran a great play in the final 3.3 seconds but didn’t get a shot because Tahj Eaddy was pushed and no foul was called.

When you realize the list of key factors could be twice as long, the conclusion that this one slipped through USC’s fingers is pretty clear.

Before addressing these issues we need to both celebrate this season and address USC’s problem with Colorado. The Trojans did far better this year than almost anyone expected, including, I believe, the coaching staff. It was in recognition of this accomplishment that Andy Enfield was named the PAC 12 Coach of the Year; he is very deserving of this award.

The Trojans have had an obvious problem recently against CU. Three of the team’s seven losses this season were to Colorado and the Trojans have now lost seven games in a row to the Buffs. After the game Enfield brought up an interesting point about this streak. In the last three years that Jordan McLaughlin was the Trojan point guard the Trojans didn’t lose to Colorado, and conversely in McKinley Wright’s last three years CU hasn’t lost to USC.

His point is that superior point guard play makes a big difference. And while that is true it can’t be the entire story or USC would have been undefeated in the McLaughlin years and conversely CU would not have lost in the last three years. Remembering that the Buffs lost to the bottom two teams in the conference this season makes it obvious that point guard play is only a part of the reason for the losing streak.

No One Other Than Evan Scored For Most Of The First Half

USC’s first possession ended with a shot clock violation. It was a hint of what the first twenty minutes would look like. At the 9:49 mark Evan made one of two free throws to close the gap to 20-7. Isaiah Mobley made a three for USC’s first basket and from that point until 4:57 was left in the half no one else scored for the Trojans. Ethan Anderson made a lay up for the first non Mobley points. Noah Baumann made a corner three to beat the horn and the score at the half was 39-30.

At the break Evan had 17 of the Trojans’ 30 points and for most of the half he was the entire USC offense. Noah had his three points, Isaiah Mobley scored five and Ethan had five. They were the only Trojans to score in the half. Tahj and Drew Peterson were a combined 0-6.

Each team made 13 baskets in the half but USC was 3-9 from three and CU was 7-12. The other big difference was the Buffs were 6-8 from the foul line and the Trojans were 1-3.

USC Gave Away Points With A Flagrant Foul And A Technical

Early in the game Chevez Goodwin rebounded a missed CU shot and in an effort to get away from two Buffs he swung his elbow to create space and he hit McKinley Wright in the head. A flagrant foul was called which resulted in two made free throws.

Late in the half Ethan made a three point shot and as he trotted back on defense he pointed to his head. Either that resulted in a technical or he said something that one of the officials didn’t like. Either way the fact he made a shot with the Trojans still trailing big didn’t seem the right time to say or do anything. It resulted in another made free throw.

Maybe This Was The Game The Trojans Lost At The Foul Line

USC has flirted with losing games because they are very poor from the line. On Thursday USC made its first 11 foul shots and finished at 75%; they needed those free throws to beat Utah. They would have beaten CU if they made free throws.

USC connected on only 6-12 foul shots while CU made 8-10. Evan was very good from the line against Utah but made only 3-7 in this game. Since Evan carried the team he can’t be blamed for missing some free throws, but 75% would have added three points.

Tahj Was Shut Out Until Very Late

Utah played with a big guard whose sole role was to shut Tahj down and that worked for almost the entire game. Tahj didn’t score until only 3:52 was left; his three closed the gap to 68-59. Three minutes earlier CU’s lead had been cut to 58-56, but the Buffs pulled away again.

After Tahj’s three Evan made a three and Tahj scored again and the lead was down to 68-64 with 2:00 left. Tahj made another three at the 1:20 mark cutting the lead to 70-67. With 35 seconds left Tahj did it again. He made a driving layup and was fouled. His free throw tied the game at 70-70.

In a three minute span Tahj was 4-4 from the floor including two threes and a free throw for 11 points. After the game he said that the Buffs changed how they defended ball screens which gave him having more space late n the game. He added: “We had better flow and spacing as the game progressed.”

The Trojans Lost The Battle Of The Glass

Each team had 17 rebounds in the first half. The Buffs out rebounded the Trojans by eight in the second half and more importantly they finished with 15 offensive rebounds to USC’s 8. The winning basket was a put back off a missed shot.

I think this is the most important stat of the game. The Trojans didn’t do well on the offensive glass in large part because Evan was near the foul line on many Trojan possessions. This worked fine for his scoring but he wasn’t a big factor on the offensive boards. However, that spacing doesn’t explain why the Buffs did so well on their offensive glass and made several put backs.

I asked Enfield about this and he replied that the Trojans got their hands on four or five defensive rebounds but “just couldn’t come up with it.” He noted that CU had five team offensive rebounds which were not credited to a player because USC fumbled the ball out or bounds otherwise lost control of the ball.

What makes the rebounding stat more exasperating is that the Trojans have been out rebounded by CU in all of the seven straight losses. In this game the Trojan bigs did a poor job of boxing out on the defensive glass. Colorado took seven more shots than the Trojans because of their offensive rebounding.

The Trojans Passed Up Open Shots

Enfield has said many times this year that the guards need to take open shots. If they don’t the defense can sag more on Evan and the offense bogs down. Max Agbonkpolo passed up a wide open corner three in the first half, and Tahj and Drew each hesitated a couple of times. One of the bigger plays late in the game occurred when Ethan passed up an open three and drove into the lane and was called for a charge.

Should The Trojans Have Fouled On The Final CU Possession?

When Tahj tied the game with 33 seconds left USC only had four second half fouls. CU called a time out and when play resumed everyone in the building knew McKinley Wright would take the final shot. He dribbled beyond the three point line and made a late move into the lane. He missed the shot and Colorado grabbed the rebound and laid it in.

The question is whether USC should have fouled Wright when he began his move with under ten seconds left. As long as the foul came before Wright was in the act of shooting the Trojans could have fouled him twice in those final ten seconds giving CU very little time to work with. Perhaps Enfield didn’t want to risk a seventh foul on the dribble which would have put Wright on the line. Even so, at least one foul could have been taken.

The Referee Swallowed His Whistle On The Final Play

When CU scored the go ahead basket Enfield called time out with 3.3 seconds left to set up a final desperation play. “We executed the last play perfectly. (McKinley) Wright pushed Tahj in the back right in front of the referee and no foul was called.”

It was a well designed play. Isaiah Mobley inbounded the ball with a high pass to Evan near mid court. Tahj got a running start down the right sideline and Evan passed to him in time for a couple dribbles and a shot. The pass was fumbled because of the push by Wright and the Trojans didn’t get a final shot.

The Trojans Win When Three Players Score In Double Figures

USC is 19-0 when three or more players score in double figures and 3-7 when they don’t.

Other Stats Of Note

Wright made only 25% of his threes this season. In this game he was 4-6 from three. Forward Jeriah Horne killed USC with threes in the recent game at Boulder. In this game he made only 6-15 shots but was 4-8 from three.

Enfield noted that the Trojans were not moving the ball in the first half and the offense was stagnant and Evan was forced to do it all. USC made a very good 60% of their shots in the second half but CU’s offensive rebounds allowed them to take more shots.

The Trojan played from behind all night. Their last lead was at 6-3. At one point CU went on a 17-0 run. It showed a lot of determination to come all of the way back but it wasn’t enough.

After not scoring in the first half Drew had nine points on 4-10 from the floor including a three. But he also missed his only two free throws. Chevez made his two free throws but the better foul shooters did not.

A Bit Of The Trojan Future

In warmups before the game I watched Boubacar Coulibaly and Reese Waters. They make me think there will be more returning talent than might be expected with Evan leaving and possibly all three grad transfers not returning. In one drill the players were dunking from a layup line. Boubacar’s leaping ability is extraordinary. He also was shooting 12-15 jump shots. He shoots with a very high arc and was easily making most of those shots.

Reese is a natural shooter. His shot is effortless and he will be an important player next season.

And One

Enfield told the players after the game that they played very hard and had their chances but couldn’t quite get it done. He told them he was very proud of what they accomplished this year and they need to keep their heads up. He emphasized that it will be one and done in Indianapolis and every possession will matter. Hopefully the bitter taste of this defeat will fade when the brackets are announced on Sunday.

Enfield told the media that Evan has improved throughout the season. Tahj said that Evan was very aggressive in the games in Las Vegas and they will need him to continue as they move on.

Jason Hart was on the phone in the tunnel after the team and coaches had left for the locker room. Perhaps talking to a recruit? There is speculation that he might be in line for a head job this off season though it seems like an odd time for that to be the subject of the call.

This has been a fun season and in a few days we’ll learn the Trojans’ NCAA fate. Some speculated that USC could have risen to a four seed if they won the Tournament. That seems like a reach now though the Ken Pom computer ranking still has the Trojans 16th after Friday’s games. However computer programs can lead to strange results. Colorado is also 22-7 and has beaten USC three times and is 17th in that ranking, presumably because of a couple of very bad losses. The Trojans don’t have a loss to a bad team, but it’s all speculation until Sunday afternoon.

WeAreSC Player Of The Week

The Week 14 winner is obviously Evan Mobley. He has won seven times out of thirteen weekly awards (one week there was no winner). Evan scored 26 points in both games this week and is the reason USC beat Utah and the reason the Trojans stayed in the game with Colorado and had a chance to win. The question now is how many more games will Evan play in a Trojan uniform. We know at least one more. Here’s hoping it is “several” more.