For about 35 minutes against Arizona State on Sunday, USC, again, had played well enough to win.
The Trojans, who were missing four players, held the Sun Devils under 33% shooting. They received a career-best performance from Kahlil Dukes. In the second half, they led by as many as 10 points.
USC did nearly everything but win the game. Arizona State was the latest to claim a close victory over the Trojans, this time 64-59. Seven of USC's last nine losses have been decided by three possessions or fewer.
"I'm certainly optimistic about where we are as a program and what we're going to do in the future," USC Coach Andy Enfield said. "But at the same time, we would like to be on the other side of these once in a while."
USC (10-17, 2-13 in the Pac-12) played with a short bench after three players — Katin Reinhardt, Chass Bryan and Devon Pflueger — were sent back to Los Angeles for violating team rules. Their absence, especially the loss of Reinhardt, whose 12 points per game is less than a point off the team lead, shrunk an already short USC bench. Enfield said their status for future games has yet to be determined.
Starting point guard Jordan McLaughlin, who reinjured his surgically repaired left shoulder on Feb.11, watched the game in warmup sweats. His return date, if he plays at all for the remainder of the season, is still unknown.
USC's lack of depth hurt late. The Trojans led, 56-50, with 4:55 left but didn't score again until a basket interference with one second remaining snapped the drought. Jonathan Gilling hit a three-pointer with the shot clock expiring with 44 seconds left to give Arizona State (15-12, 7-7) the decisive score. The Sun Devils outscored USC, 14-3, to close the game.
"I thought we missed a lot of easy shots down the stretch," Enfield said.
The short bench forced Enfield to be creative. Dukes was the backup point guard because, Enfield said, "we had no other choice."
Elijah Stewart scored 11 points, and Dukes, who averages just 1.2 points and 4.8 minutes per game, had 18 points.
He is improving, Enfield said, just like the rest of his teammates. The improvement just hasn't come quickly enough.
"We just know we're right there," Dukes said.