As his teammates left to scarf down sandwiches and shower before departing for Utah on Wednesday, USC shooting guard Elijah Stewart lingered on the practice court to hoist some extra shots. Three managers juggled four basketballs on a constant rotation to Stewart. He was trying to burst through a teamwide shooting affliction.
“The only indicator I know when I’m missing a lot of shots is that the coaches keep saying, ‘Keep shooting, keep shooting, keep shooting,’” Stewart said as he walked off the court. “And whenever they say that, it’s kind of like, ‘Dang, I must be missing a lot of shots.’”
A lot of Trojans have been missing a lot of shots recently. They kept shooting — and shooting, and shooting against Utah on Thursday. Hardly any went in. Utah ran No. 25 USC off the court in an 86-64 blowout, during which one USC player said the team gave up by the second half.
USC has lost two games in a row and three of its last four. A 14-0 start still provides a useful cushion, but USC (15-3, 2-3 in the Pac-12 Conference) now has a losing conference record.
Thursday was USC’s worst defensive performance this season in points allowed in regulation. Only twice this season has USC shot worse than its 36.7% from the field.
“We just weren’t playing hard enough,” guard Shaqquan Aaron said.
Stewart went scoreless for the first time in more than a year, missing all six field-goal attempts. Jordan McLaughlin (nine points) made three of nine. Aaron (six points) made two of seven. De’Anthon Melton (six points) made two of 10.
“Our guards missed layups,” Enfield said. “Our bigs missed layups. And then we missed free throws. And then we missed wide-open threes.”
Only Chimezie Metu scored in double figures, with 17 points on six-for-10 shooting.
Oddly enough, it was the Trojans who threatened to run away with the game early. They jumped to a 10-0 lead. The crowd fell silent. Utah took a timeout.
The lead evaporated as quickly as it materialized, and by late in the first half, Utah (12-4, 3-1) made nine shots in a row — 23 points without a USC stop.
“That’ll do it to you,” Enfield said. “You give up nine straight baskets.”
Utah made 55% of its field goals. It made nine of 17 three-pointers. Devon Daniels led the Utes with 17 points.
On the USC bench, shoulders drooped. Sprints turned to jogs.
“They played harder than us,” Aaron said. “When a team makes a run, you can’t stop and figure out why they’re making a run. You’ve just go keep playing. Don’t stop playing.”
Utah has won eight straight games against USC, a fact which Utah Coach Larry Krystkowiak hammered into his players during the week.
Forward Kyle Kuzma, who scored 12 points with 11 rebounds, said Kryst-kowiak “blurted it out one time to us. ‘You don’t want to be that group.’”
Enfield suggested that USC’s shooting problems bled onto the defensive end. “You’ve got to have a little more excitement, a little more energy on the defensive end when you’re making shots,” Enfield said. “That was our problem tonight.”
As Stewart could’ve predicted, Enfield said there was one way to break out of the doldrums: keep shooting.
“I’ve never told a player in my coaching career not to shoot the basketball when you’re open,” Enfield said.
Sunday at Colorado, 5:30 p.m. PST, Coors Events Center, Boulder, Colo., ESPNU — The Buffaloes went 8-1 at home in Pac-12 Conference play last season.
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