In the final stretch of a season stunted by mental mistakes and missed opportunities, at a juncture in which USC could hardly afford either, Elijah Weaver took the ball out of a timeout with less than a minute remaining. He dribbled to the left side of the arc, waiting for something to unfold. But the offense froze.
The uncertain sophomore stood paralyzed, and soon enough, the Trojans unraveled in a disheartening 70-66 loss to No. 18 Colorado.
Just moments earlier, with USC trailing by three in a game it once led by 14, Andy Enfield drew up a play. The plan was to feed freshman Onyeka Okongwu, who, in his return from a concussion, had kept the Trojans close all night. But whatever was drawn on the coach’s white board never came to fruition. Neither did USC’s hopes of seizing a Pac-12 lead that was within their grasp.
“It came down to mental mistakes,” Enfield said. “We had some crucial mental mistakes defensively, and then when the game is on the line offensively, you have to execute. I’m very, very disappointed that we call a play in a timeout, and we can’t run what we draw up.”
It was the same sort of inexplicable mishap that has haunted USC (19-8, 8-6 Pac-12) all season. Weaver had gone left. The play called for him to go right. So as he stood on the edge of the arc, the rest of the offense stared at its point guard, unsure of what to do next. Finally, with the shot clock ticking away, Weaver lifted for an ill-advised, contested jumper.
It failed. Frustrations mounted soon after, when Daniel Utomi was called for traveling with eight seconds left, taking away the Trojans’ chance to tie the score.
The frustations bubbled over in the locker room, where Enfield’s postgame rage was heard in a back hallway. A seething Enfield came out a few minutes later, pulling no punches with his players.
First, he pointed to Weaver.
“If he wants to be a lead guard in this league, you have to be able to come out in game-time situations, when the game is on the line, and follow directions to go to the right side of the floor, to get the ball to our big guy,” Enfield said. “I’m not going to make excuses. Mental mistakes, if you want to win games on the road, especially if you’re a lead guard as a sophomore, you have to be able to follow the darn board in the timeout.”
But that play was hardly the only plan the Trojans failed to follow.
After preaching three-point defense the past two weeks, USC proved helpless to stop Colorado’s second-half barrage from deep. As their adjustments failed, the Trojans reversed their game plan and tried switching on defense. Colorado shooters made them pay, hitting five of six at one point.
In the second half, the Buffaloes made eight of 14 from behind the arc.
It was a sudden rush of offense the Trojans simply couldn’t match. After falling behind 20-6 lead to start the game, Colorado caught up in a hurry as USC struggled just as much to shoot the three as it did to defend it.
Utomi hit the Trojans’ first three-pointer of the night, less than five minutes remained in the game.
Colorado (21-6, 10-4) hit a three on the next possession, its eighth after halftime.
“We just let off the gas pedal,” Okongwu said. “They came out hard. We weren’t tough enough. We’re going to regroup.”
The freshman was perhaps the only Trojan who could match Colorado’s toughness on Thursday. After sitting out two games in concussion protocol, Okongwu scored 21 points while fighting through fatigue.
Still, the freshman was far from perfect. A frustrated Enfield pointed out that he had just two defensive rebounds.
“We tend to lose focus at times,” Okongwu admitted. “That hit us tonight. We have to recover from that. Stop doing stuff like that, and we’ll be OK for the rest of the season.”
With just four games remaining, though, there isn’t much time to rectify USC’s conference record or its tournament resume.
They’ll need to win at least a few of those games to hold onto their tenuous spot on the tournament bubble.
A road victory in Boulder might’ve simplified that calculus. That’s the frustrating reality Enfield found himself railing against on Thursday night, as USC leaves another disheartening road defeat, stewing over the same missteps, offering the same explanations.
“Players win games,” Enfield said. “They have to step up and make plays down the stretch, defensively, offensively. As coaches, we give them all the credit in the world — when they win, it’s because of them. Colorado stepped up and made some plays and we didn’t.”