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USC’s late surge falls short in Pac-12 tournament loss to Colorado

USC's Ethan Anderson controls the ball in front of Colorado's McKinley Wright.
USC’s Ethan Anderson controls the ball in front of Colorado’s McKinley Wright during the first half of the Trojans’ 72-70 loss in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals Friday.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Their superstar freshman had carried the USC Trojans as far as they could go. Their transfer point guard had kept their pulse alive late, scoring his only 11 points over the final four minutes. But as D’Shawn Schwartz leaped unabated to slam home a missed jumper in the final seconds, USC could only watch.

Its comeback had fallen short. Its Pac-12 tournament pursuit was over in a 72-70 loss to Colorado in Las Vegas.

For USC, it was a familiar script against a familiar foe. Colorado had beaten USC six times in a row before Friday night’s semifinal, and this time was no different.

The Trojans were outrebounded, 37-29, just like they had been in their previous two losses to the Buffaloes this season.

And just like before, they fell way behind early and tried to force their way back, this time tying the score at 70 with just 35 seconds left on a Tahj Eaddy lay-in and subsequent free throw.

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But like it had all night, Colorado brushed off USC’s best effort. With 3.3 seconds left, the Trojans drew up a play to find Eaddy streaking down the sideline, but the pass from Evan Mobley was tipped, and the ball was turned over.

“We played very hard tonight,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “We got back in the game. We tied it up. We had a chance to take the lead.”

Enfield would contend that a foul went uncalled on that last desperate play, but the mistakes USC made in the first half were far more to blame. Even as USC shot over 60 percent in the second, it couldn’t find a way past Colorado again.

“For some reason, they shoot the ball very very well against us,” Enfield said. “If you look at their last couple games, they didn’t shoot it so well. Tonight, they were on fire again.”

Now, as Colorado moves on to face Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament final, USC will await its fate on a Selection Sunday devoid of much drama, considering how safe the Trojans place in the tournament remains.

USC wouldn’t have come anywhere close to the Pac-12 tournament final without Mobley, who for the second straight night scored a career-high 26 points to keep the Trojans in it. Mobley was dominant on both sides of the ball and aggressive as he’s looked all season. He controlled the paint, and when it clogged, he hit shots from the perimeter, knocking down 11 of 16 shots in what may have been his finest offensive performance as a Trojan.

“He’s been ultra aggressive,” Eaddy said. “He’s taking his jump shot more. Teams are nervous for him to get around the basket.”

If USC had followed his lead early, it might’ve skated into Saturday. But things couldn’t have started worse on Friday night. Outside of Mobley, USC looked completely lost in the first half. Its top-notch defense sagged. Its offense was brutal. For seven minutes, the Trojans were held completely scoreless, watching as their Pac-12 hopes floated away and Colorado fired off a 17-0 scoring run, determined to run USC out of Las Vegas before halftime.

USC's Evan Mobley, center, passes around Colorado's Evan Battey, left, and Eli Parquet during the first half Friday.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

The Trojans survived the onslaught — just barely — but by the end of its scoreless stretch, they had more turnovers (seven) than points, while Colorado had the game well in hand.

If not for Mobley, USC might’ve waved the white flag right then. The star freshman was determined to drag the otherwise lifeless Trojans along, scoring 11 of their first 13 points and 17 total in the first half.

Even his heroics couldn’t hold off Colorado, who had its own hero in senior point guard McKinley Wright. Wright left briefly for the locker room in the first half after an errant Chevez Goodwin elbow struck the side of his head. The frightening contact only made for a more extraordinary comeback, as Wright returned shortly after and took control, piloting a Colorado offense that couldn’t miss in the first half.

But that offense grinded to a halt shortly after halftime, and with less than seven minutes remaining, Isaiah Mobley hit a three-pointer. Colorado responded with turnover, leaving USC with an opportunity to tie that an hour earlier might’ve seemed impossible.

They couldn’t take advantage. On the ensuing possession, Ethan Anderson was called for a charge, and everything fell apart from there. Jeriah Horne, the sharpshooter who sunk them earlier this season, hit two straight from three-point range, and all of a sudden the Colorado lead was 10 again.

USC somehow clawed its way back to a tie, offering a sliver a hope in a game that throughout deserved little. But it was stolen away shortly after, leaving USC to hope for more from the remainder of March.

“We have to keep our heads up,” Enfield said. “Our players have to remember they’ve accomplished a lot.”


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