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USC's NCAA tournament hopes take another hit with 87-65 loss to California

USC's NCAA tournament hopes take another hit with 87-65 loss to California
USC forward Nikola Jovanovic (32) looks to pass around California defenders Ivan Rabb, second from left, Jaylen Brown (0) and Jordan Mathews (24) in the first half. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)

Hope departed USC's bench shortly after the second half began Sunday. Shoulders slumped. Heads hung.

In the waning minutes of the game, players found creative uses for their white sideline towels.

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Forward Chimezie Metu used one to cover his mouth. Forward Malik Martin draped one over his head. Point guard Julian Jacobs placed one between his teeth, then bit.

At least no player threw one onto the court as USC followed its most lopsided loss of the season with an even worse one. This time, California routed the Trojans, 87-65.

USC (19-10, 8-8 in the Pac-12 Conference) has lost five of its last six games. What is wrong?

"I don't know," Jacobs said. "But it's not looking too good for us."

Little more than two weeks ago, the Trojans were a near-lock for the NCAA tournament. Now they face two crucial regular-season-ending games at home, against Oregon State and Oregon.

Two more losses could deal a mortal blow to the Trojans' tournament hopes. This week did them no favors. USC was swept by Stanford and California by a combined 42 points. They were USC's lowest scoring games of the season.

USC is in a three-way tie for sixth place in the Pac-12. Away from home, the Trojans went 2-7 in conference play.

"We're mental midgets on the road," Jacobs said. "It's ridiculous. It's the same thing every single time. It's very frustrating."

Sunday began with promise. The score was tied about midway through the first half.

"Those first 10 minutes I thought were just terrific," USC Coach Andy Enfield said.

Then, Enfield continued, "all of a sudden, they kept making shots, and we stopped."

The Trojans missed their next seven field goals. They missed three free throws. California scored 14 points unanswered.

USC didn't score for nearly seven minutes.

"And most of them were easy shots," Enfield said.

With 3.8 seconds left in the half, California forward Jaylen Brown went the full length of the court, slalomed through three defenders and scooped in a buzzer-beating layup. California led by 14. The second half was a formality.

California treated it like a highlight reel. At one point, Tyrone Wallace beat a lazy switch by Jordan McLaughlin and Katin Reinhardt and dunked over Nikola Jovanovic.

At the end of the game, which was senior night, little-used senior Nick Kerr made a three-pointer as his father, Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, watched from baseline seats.

The final tally was nightmarish. Just two USC players scored in double figures. Jovanovic, a rare bright spot, scored 21 points on 10-for-16 shooting. Jacobs scored 11 points.

But USC shot just 40% overall. Metu and fellow freshman forward Bennie Boatwright missed all 13 combined shots.

The Bears had two players with 18 points, freshmen Brown and Ivan Rabb. Jordan Mathews scored 17.

After the game, Enfield tried to remain optimistic.

"You stay positive," he said. "We love our team, we love our players. We're going to work with them, keep pumping them up."

But USC's woes have extended for most of February.

The tempo has slowed. Six of USC's seven fastest Pac-12 games, in terms of possessions, came in January.

The offense has sputtered. USC scored below its season average in every February game.

The defense has disappeared. USC has given up 80 points in four of its last five games.

The answers are simple, Enfield and Jacobs said. To start: Shoot better.

"When you've got an open layup, you've got to make it," Enfield said.

Then: Defend harder.

"We just don't guard," Jacobs said.

Enfield said he wouldn't discuss the NCAA tournament with the players. They just need to win, he said.

Said Jacobs: "We really need these two games at home."

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