A flu-ridden Nick Rakocevic sat at the end of the bench, a towel draped over his head, trying not to pass out. Jonah Mathews, fighting the same virus, had already left to vomit, only to check back in soon after. Nearby, Isaiah Mobley hobbling in pain, tried to stretch out a sprained ankle that had turned deep shades of black and blue.
As March drew closer, every conceivable force of nature seemed to conspire against USC on Sunday, just as its dwindling tournament hopes were at their most vulnerable.
The Trojans (19-9, 8-7) had done enough to dig that hole on their own, dropping four of their last six, falling to sixth place in the Pac-12, sliding further down the NCAA tournament bubble.
And so, with the clock ticking on their tournament chances, the timing could not possibly be worse for a bug to sweep through the Trojans’ locker room. Still, they fought — out of pride, out of self-preservation, out of desperation — until three minutes remained and their last bit of energy was sapped, leaving the Trojans to reckon with a 79-65 defeat to Utah from which they may never recover.
They fought their way out of a familiar, 15-point hole, cutting the lead to just five, when Daniel Utomi took off on a crucial fastbreak. Momentum had been fleeting all afternoon, but as Utomi dribbled coast-to-coast, it seemed ready to turn.
Then, he lifted for a lay-in, and pint-sized Utah guard Rylan Jones stood just in his path, embracing the contact. A charge was called. Utomi fouled out, and 16 seconds later, Utah hit a corner three, stealing what momentum was left.
“We could’ve cut it to two or three there,” coach Andy Enfield said. “You have to take advantage of the opportunities when you have them.”
With just three games remaining in its season, opportunities to boost an already-flimsy tournament resume are fading fast. All three of those games will come against teams currently ahead of the Trojans in the Pac-12 race. Two of those teams — Arizona State and UCLA — will come to Galen Center as the hottest teams in the conference.
After an ill-fated final trip, all three games look like must-win ones for a team short on marquee victories.
“If we win those three games,” point guard Ethan Anderson said, “then all will be well.”
On Sunday, the Trojans were anything but well. Down 15 pounds from the previous two days, Rakocevic still tried to play through his illness, only for Enfield to pull him after two minutes, when he nearly fell down during a free throw. Mathews managed to play 23 minutes through nausea and light-headedness, with periodic breaks to puke in the locker room.
Even Onyeka Okongwu, who paced the Trojans with an 18-point, 12-rebound performance, found himself fighting serious fatigue, having returned to the court from a concussion just a few days before.
“I’m tired,” Okongwu said. “Isaiah’s ankle is hurt. Nick and Jonah are sick. Kyle [Sturdivant] is with his family [after the recent death of his father]. I’m not trying to make excuses. We still could’ve played harder and come out stronger.”
Without its usual length in the frontcourt, USC struggled to keep Utah’s offense under control, as the Utes shot 48%. Without one of its top rebounders in Rakocevic, it was outworked on the glass. It committed just 15 turnovers to seven assists, too, adding insult to sickness and injury.
Still, the Trojans mounted multiple comebacks, only to lose their grip on each.
Regardless, when the selection committee assesses their credentials, the Trojans aren’t likely to get any sympathy.
“It’s tough to reckon with,” Mobley said, “but we just have to keep fighting. The season isn’t over yet.”
While their resume remains short on Quadrant 1 wins — just two in nine chances — the Trojans had been largely unscathed by bad losses until Sunday. Ranked 90th in the NCAA’s NET ratings criteria, Utah is now the worst defeat on its resume, a misstep the committee will no doubt consider.
As his players trudged out of the visiting locker room on Sunday night, pale and disheartened, a weary Enfield explained that the tournament was the furthest thing from his mind.
“We were just worried about our guys and their health,” Enfield said. “The tournament, obviously we want to make the tournament, but we were just worried about our guys. We weren’t thinking about that.”