With an offense featuring 35 plays, USC Coach Kevin O’Neill is finding it mostly useless while fielding a lineup with one returning starter.
“At this point,” he said. “I can’t run most of them.”
The Trojans were reminded of their weaknesses in a 51-48 loss to Nebraska on Sunday in front of 4,214 at the Galen Center.
With 8.4 seconds to play, coach and player accounts afterward indicated the Trojans had hoped to find senior guard Dwight Lewis with an open three-point shot.
The Cornhuskers (4-1) swarmed the perimeter, however, and junior guard Donte Smith held on to the ball at the top of the key. He finally passed it to senior forward Marcus Johnson, who air-balled a three-point shot from the left wing as time expired.
Said O’Neill: “We didn’t want Donte to hold on to it, obviously.”
The poor execution left the Trojans (2-2) with their second home loss despite holding the Cornhuskers to their lowest point total this season.
“Every loss is tough,” said Lewis, who had 10 points on two-for-nine shooting and committed five turnovers. “But to lose like that in the last couple of seconds leaves a bad feeling.”
There were plenty of other plays that led to the unraveling. Nebraska junior forward Quincy Hankins-Cole cut USC’s lead to 46-45 with 1 minute 35 seconds to play after USC junior guard Marcus Simmons and sophomore forward Nikola Vucevic missed layup attempts.
Cornhuskers senior guard Ryan Anderson swiped a pass from Lewis on the next possession and converted on a three-point play for a 48-46 lead with 1:06 left. Anderson finished with a team-high 14 points.
After Vucevic’s jumper tied the score, 48-48, freshman guard Eshaunte Jones made a three-point basket from the right wing with 11 seconds remaining for the 51-48 lead.
The Trojans’ 38.5% shooting and 13-for-24 performance at the free-throw line ultimately resulted in last-minute plays dictating their fate.
“Sometimes the ball bounces wrong as a team,” said junior forward Alex Stepheson, who had a team-high 13 points and 12 rebounds in 34 minutes off the bench, but was three of seven from the free-throw line. “I started missing free throws, then Nikola and it started getting contagious. Unfortunately, that was a big reason why we lost.”
There were plenty of other factors. Vucevic had only five points on one-for-eight shooting. Simmons didn’t score and missed his five field-goal tries. Smith had 10 points and committed four of USC’s season-high 17 turnovers.
Despite outrebounding the Cornhuskers, 38-27, and limiting their leading scorer, Sek Henry, to two points, the Trojans took no solace with simply being competitive against Nebraska.
“I’ve never really gathered it when people say you learn a lot by losing,” O’Neill said. “Hopefully, we’ll learn to make free throws and finish plays.”