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Column: Another deflating late-season loss underlines what’s at stake for USC

Southern California guard Ethan Anderson (20) shoots against Arizona during the second half.
USC guard Ethan Anderson puts up a shot during an 81-72 loss to Arizona on Saturday at the Galen Center.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The question entering this weekend was whether these Trojans could have elevated basketball at USC in a nonpandemic year, the team finally enjoying the kind of season that was envisioned when Andy Enfield was hired.

Now, in the wake of a deflating 81-72 defeat to an unremarkable Arizona team on Saturday, the Trojans have to be asking themselves something entirely different.

Are they really the best team Enfield has coached in his eight seasons at USC? Or are they bound to repeat the cycle of crashing and burning after looking as if they could make college basketball important again on this stretch of Figueroa Street?

The Trojans have one of the most talented players in the country in freshman Evan Mobley, a likely top-five selection in the next NBA draft.

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They have won 13 of their last 15 games and are ranked 17th in the country.

USC lost to Arizona 81-72 at Galen Center on Saturday, ending its win streak at seven. The Trojans fell to 12-3 in the Pac-12 and are tied with UCLA.

They are tied for first place in the Pac-12.

Until the Trojans can prove otherwise, however, the onus remains on Enfield to show the program can create magic in March.

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The coming week will be instructive.

They will host Oregon on Monday in a makeup game, the difficulty of taking on a fellow conference title contender magnified by a last-minute scheduling change. Until Thursday morning, the Trojans believed they were playing Stanford.

The game against the Ducks will be followed by road games against Colorado and Utah, the Buffaloes responsible for one of USC’s three Pac-12 losses.

“That’s where mental toughness comes in,” Enfield said.

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USC coach Andy Enfield shouts from the sideline during Saturday's loss to Arizona.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The Trojans displayed a minimal amount of such resilience Saturday at Galen Center, when they looked as if they were awakened from afternoon naps only minutes before they tipped off against the Wildcats.

Enfield’s players allowed themselves to be pushed around by the visitors, who began the game with as many conference defeats as victories.

USC shot better than Arizona in the opening half, 48.3% to 41.7%. But the Wildcats had a 21-16 edge in rebounding, which helped them take a 37-31 lead into the break.

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The Trojans were outrebounded in a game for only the third time this season; they lost the two other games as well.

Mobley was an embodiment of the team’s passivity, with his first shot not coming until he made a layup with 5 minutes 8 seconds remaining in the opening half.

At halftime, Enfield and his assistants made it a point to mention the statistics of Arizona’s frontcourt players. Azuolas Tubelis already had a double-double. Jordan Brown had 11 points.

Mobley responded by scoring USC’s first eight points of the second half and erased the six-point deficit.

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

Except Eaddy was the only player who was able to take advantage.

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

Mobley finished with 23 points and Eaddy with 17. No other Trojan scored more than eight.

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“We didn’t play our best game,” Enfield acknowledged.

Enfield defended his team’s mental fortitude, pointing to how the Trojans have played well defensively and won close games.

He’s counting on his players learning from the upset. He believes they will, which is why he said he didn’t say much to them after.

The season will depend on it. The program’s future could too. This is around the time Enfield’s teams usually start unraveling.

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Even not counting Enfield’s first two seasons at USC, when the Trojans finished last in the Pac-12, his teams before this season had a February record of 16-22.

This season has inspired optimism that Enfield has figured out something, with the Trojans winning their first five games this month. Saturday served as a bucket of cold water.

If the Trojans are the team Enfield believes they are, the setback will serve as a cautionary tale that will prepare them to help Enfield win his first Pac-12 championship and reach his first Sweet 16 with USC.

But this game also could have been a warning of disappointments that are ahead, that this program is destined to remain an afterthought.


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