Elijah Stewart thumbed his phone inside a quiet USC locker room Thursday night, then looked up.
“Someone just texted me right now,” Stewart said, then read: “‘Some nights, some people can hit a moving basket.’ ”
He shook his head. USC’s much-improved Pac-12 Conference season had ended moments before with an 80-72 loss to No. 12 Utah in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals. The Trojans believe they are a good bet for an NCAA tournament bid on Sunday. But before worrying about that, they needed time to digest one late Utah shot.
With 90 seconds left, and USC within three points of completing a furious comeback, Utah guard Brandon Taylor dribbled around above the top of the key. The shot clock ticked down.
He stepped in and launched a shot, from about 30 feet away. Swish.
“The dagger,” USC guard Julian Jacobs called it.
“I’m certainly not going to compare him to Steph Curry,” Utah Coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “But…”
No power-five conference team improved more, record-wise, than USC. In Enfield’s first two seasons, USC won only five Pac-12 games.
This season, USC’s record is 21-12. It has five wins against teams in the Ratings Percentage (RPI) top 50. It has 12 wins against the top 100. It has avoided any losses against teams out of the top 100.
Barring a surprise, USC will be an NCAA tournament team.
“I think there is no question that we deserve to be in the tournament,” Enfield said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to play us.”
Some concerns remain. The Trojans are only 1-7 against the top 25. They lost seven of their last 10 games.
Considering where USC was a year ago, Enfield was pleased. Two reporters asked him how USC could turn the corner against top teams.
“I think we’ve turned quite a few corners,” Enfield replied. “In fact, we might be circling right now.”
The last time USC played Utah (25-7), center Jakob Poeltl, the Pac-12 player of the year, dominated. So, on Thursday, USC threw everyone at Poeltl.
Poeltl took only seven shots, but he made five of them for 14 points with eight rebounds.
They made 12 of their final 13 shots in the first half to take an eight-point halftime lead. Kyle Kuzma made 11 of 12 attempts overall for 23 points.
“You’re not going to take everything away. You just have to hope,” Enfield said. “If the third and fourth options beat you, then you lose.”
The Utes shot almost 61% for the game. Their lead grew to 13 points.
Playing from behind, the Trojans lean on their two point guards.
On Thursday, the pair, Jacobs and Jordan McLaughlin, kept USC alive. They scored nearly two-thirds of USC’s second-half points.
McLaughlin scored 24 points, 20 in the second half, and Jacobs finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
A McLaughlin shot pulled USC within two points with three minutes left. On the next possession, Chimezie Metu blocked Poeltl’s layup at the rim. The game, Stewart said later, felt like it was turning — until Taylor buried his long three-pointer.
A few minutes afterward, the Trojans trudged toward the locker room. Jacobs stared at the floor, his shoulders hanging.
The USC fans sitting above the tunnel stood and cheered.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter: @zhelfand