With three minutes left and the score tied, a question hovered above the proceedings Saturday night at Galen Center: Had USC actually evolved into one of the better teams in the Pac-12 during the course of this confounding season?
Colorado’s hard-charging point guard, McKinley Wright IV, had the answer.
He sped right past USC point guard Derryck Thornton for an easy layup. Jonah Mathews answered with a layup of his own for the Trojans. On the Buffaloes’ return trip, Wright did not hesitate to test Thornton again, and this time made even quicker work of him on the way to another layup.
On each defensive lapse, a USC big man was not there to help Thornton at the rim after the guard had been screened.
“Not sure how that happened,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “That’s a very, very simple play. It’s not like it’s complicated. It’s just a high ball screen.”
After Wright’s second layup, Thornton missed an open three-pointer that would have given the Trojans the lead in the final minute, and the Buffaloes finished off a 69-65 win from there.
For most of the night, it wasn’t hard to see where USC was deficient, and Wright’s final drives to victory only emphasized it.
All season, the Trojans have been looking for consistency at point guard and haven’t found it. Saturday, Wright finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Thornton, Mathews and Elijah Weaver combined for 15 points, eight rebounds and one assist.
USC’s best player and big-moment shot taker, Bennie Boatwright, led the Trojans with 24 points but was forced to pass the potential game-winner off to Thornton.
“We had a tough game tonight,” Enfield said. “Had a couple chances to win it or at least take the lead, and we miss two wide-open threes. They were able to get to the rim and shoot two right-hand layups.”
This week, in suffering shocking back-to-back home losses to Utah and Colorado, USC missed out on a golden opportunity to put itself firmly into second place. It now sits at 13-11 and 6-5 in the conference..
With Washington so far in front in the Pac-12 standings and the Trojans no longer in contention for an at-large berth for the NCAA tournament, the best-case scenario for this season is to finish in the top four in the regular season to earn a bye in the first round of the league tournament, then win three in a row to punch their ticket the old-fashioned way in Las Vegas.
On Wednesday night, USC’s loss to Utah appeared to put that hope in real jeopardy. But, as has been the case all season long, the most talented teams in the Pac-12 followed the Trojans’ lead and began to self-destruct. Arizona State, considered to have the best at-large NCAA tournament resume in the league, lost to lowly Washington State in Tempe. Oregon State, in second place with USC and the Sun Devils, promptly fell to Stanford in Corvallis.
In the first half, the Trojans remained stunted offensively compared to their run of five straight conference home wins to begin the season. USC shot just 38% from the floor, including 33.3% from three-point range, and too many possessions were staged without touches from top scorers Boatwright and Nick Rakocevic. For the second straight game, Thornton did not have an assist in the first half.
Colorado, trying to play its way into the logjam of mediocrity in the standings, matched USC at every turn, and the game was tied 29-29 at the break. It was like that the entire second half, too, until Wright put the Trojans away.
“He’s a good point guard,” Mathews said. “They set the screen lower, and he was able to get to the basket. He’s a quick guard, and he’s going to find his way.”
Wednesday at Stanford, 8 p.m., Maples Pavilion, ESPNU — The Cardinal have played their way into the middle of the Pac-12 standings at 5-5 and play at Oregon on Sunday before hosting USC in Palo Alto. The Trojans beat Stanford 77-66 at Galen Center earlier this season.