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USC beaten on the boards as seven-game win streak ends with loss to Arizona

Arizona's Jordan Brown goes up for a shot between USC's Chevez Goodwin, left, and Isaiah Mobley on Feb. 20, 2021.
Arizona’s Jordan Brown goes up for a shot between USC’s Chevez Goodwin, left, and Isaiah Mobley. Brown had 19 points and 13 rebounds in the Wildcats’ 81-72 win.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The 7-footer stood in the paint, swallowed up by a sea of flailing limbs.

Evan Mobley had done his best to save USC on Saturday afternoon, scoring 19 points in the second half, but now there was nowhere to go, no space left in which to operate. The freshman pivoted and pivoted and pivoted, but there was no use amid Arizona’s defense. A whistle blew. A possession was lost. Soon, so was the No. 17 Trojans’ seven-game winning streak.

It was the exact sort of suffocating effort that previously propelled USC to the top of the Pac-12 Conference standings. As the Trojans won 13 of 14 since the new year, surging into first place and securing their best start in nearly half a century, they did so by outmuscling, outhustling and outlasting opposing teams. No one had outrebounded them since December. Their defense was among the nation’s best.

But on Saturday afternoon at Galen Center, an opponent finally beat USC at its own game. Arizona outplayed the Trojans on the glass, in the paint and on the perimeter, dealing them an 81-72 loss, their first in more than a month. The Wildcats, who had lost four of their last five games, simply outworked them.

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Highlights from USC’s 81-72 loss to Arizona on Saturday ay Galen Center.

“There’s a certain mentality you have to have against a team as talented and physical as Arizona,” USC coach Andy Enfield said.

And it was apparent from the opening tip that USC (18-4, 12-3 Pac-12) just didn’t have it Saturday. The Trojans were outrebounded (43-36) for only the third time this season, a statistic that has marked three of the Trojans’ four defeats this season. USC’s defense, the best in the Pac-12 at this point, also left a lot to be desired, as Arizona dominated the paint in the first half, then moved to the perimeter in the second.

The 81 points the Trojans allowed were the most since November, when USC needed overtime to beat Cal Baptist.

USC’s disappointing loss to Arizona once again shows how important it is for Andy Enfield to find a way to stop the annual cycle of crashing and burning.

If not for Mobley and transfer guard Tahj Eaddy, who scored 17 points, the Trojans probably wouldn’t have found themselves within striking distance with eight minutes left. But after Mobley was called for traveling, the Trojans unraveled for good. Arizona’s Kerr Kriisa hit a three-pointer on the next possession, and USC never closed the gap again.

“We weren’t as tough as we could’ve been,” Eaddy said. “We didn’t match their intensity when we came out.”

USC's Evan Mobley goes up for a shot against Arizona's Christian Koloko in the second half Feb. 20, 2021.
USC’s Evan Mobley, who finished with 23 points, goes up for a shot against Arizona’s Christian Koloko during the second half.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

That lackluster tone was set early. USC slogged its way through the opening minutes, as its star big man struggled to touch the ball. Mobley did not attempt shot over the first 15 minutes, fading as Arizona gave him extra attention underneath.

As the Trojans went into halftime trailing, Mobley had just four points and two shot attempts, both of which came after Enfield called plays to put the ball in his hands.

Graduate transfer Tajh Eaddy is one of the major reasons USC is in first place in the Pac-12. The point guard is averaging 17.4 points a game in February.

In the locker room, the USC coach pointed to the stat line of Arizona’s two bigs, Azuolas Tubelis and Jordan Brown. Both were already in double figures in scoring. He wanted to send a message.

“I think Evan took it personally,” Enfield said.

The freshman came out swinging after that, scoring the first eight points of the second half and locking down Tubelis. Mobley finished with 23 points, five rebounds and four blocks, even after he was a nonfactor for nearly a quarter of the game.

“When he’s dominant like that offensively, he garners a lot of attention,” Eaddy said. “He makes the game easier for everyone else.”

But on Saturday, nothing seemed to come easy for any of the Trojans besides their two leading scorers. The supporting cast shot a meager 12 for 35 from the field, begging questions of whether USC might be able to weather an off night from either of its stars in March.

So when the Wildcats’ James Akinjo came alive — he finished with 20 points — and Arizona started getting hot from long range late, hitting five of nine in the second half, USC had little recourse for a comeback.

Ayo Dosunmu starred as No. 5 Illinois crushed Minnesota 94-63, while Duke defeated No. 7 Virginia 66-65 to improve its NCAA tournament chances.

The Trojans won’t have much time to steady themselves for a bounce back either. Oregon awaits Monday night at Galen Center, with important Pac-12 implications on the line. UCLA tied USC atop the conference standings with a win over Arizona State on Saturday night.

With just five games left in their season, the Trojans will have to hold on tight if they hope to bring home their first conference title since the 1984-85 season.

“Every game is going to be a tough game no matter who you’re playing,” Mobley said. “We just have to bring it from the start in every single game.”


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