No. 16 USC has no answer in lopsided loss to No. 2 Arizona

USC guard Boogie Ellis and forward Max Agbonkpolo wrestle for the ball with Arizona guard Kerr Kriisa.
USC guard Boogie Ellis and forward Max Agbonkpolo, right, wrestle for the ball with Arizona guard Kerr Kriisa during the game Tuesday at Galen Center.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

After three weeks of narrow, nail-biting escapes and harrowing, hold-your-breath finishes, USC finally tangled itself into a knot it couldn’t untie.

It’d been forced to contort plenty en route to a record 25 victories this season. But there would be no such late escape this time, not with Arizona tightening its grip on a Pac-12 title every chance it got until the Trojans could breathe no more, collapsing in their most lopsided loss of the season, 91-71.

By that point, a sellout Galen Center crowd dressed in all white was already walking dejectedly out of the building, barely making a fuss as Arizona celebrated alone on the court, surrounded by cameras.


“It was frustrating,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “I know our players are frustrated. They didn’t have their best games.”

Tuesday’s rescheduled meeting was supposed to be USC’s chance to announce itself as a serious contender. With their arena packed, a six-game win streak in tow and a national audience watching, the Trojans seemed primed to push the Wildcats at the start of their gantlet finish to the season. Now, UCLA awaits on Saturday, with a chance to steal second place from USC, which has won five in a row over its crosstown rivals.

Instead, the Trojans were run off the court Tuesday in their final home game of the season, falling behind at one point by 30. With March looming, their resume still consists of just one ranked win.

Rivals USC and UCLA will face off in the first round of the Pac-12 women’s tournament Wednesday in Las Vegas.

March 1, 2022

They’d kept it close the first time in Tucson, holding a six-point lead over Arizona until the final six minutes, when their offense came apart from the perimeter. USC finished that game missing 14 of its last 15 shots in what felt, at the time, like a fluky finish for a team that was so strong down the final stretch of games.

As it turns out, that early February finish was more like an omen, the warnings of which were on display over the Trojans’ six-game win streak since. As USC escaped one Pac-12 opponent after another, enduring serious scares from lesser teams such as Pacific, Washington State and Oregon State.

This time, USC would never get close enough to even consider escaping Arizona. Not as it held USC’s playmakers in check, as Drew Peterson shot a paltry two for 11 from the field for 10 points. Max Agbonkpolo led the way for the Trojans, scoring 14.


“Our three leading scores started out three for 22 from the field,” Enfield said. “You’re not going to win playing like that.”

Arizona burst out of the gate like a team intent on erasing any doubt about the fate of the Pac-12 title race. Its defense clogged passing lanes, forcing five early USC turnovers. Its high-flying offense soared in transition, slamming home dunk after dunk, knocking down trailing three-pointer after trailing three-pointer, and quickly quieting the crowd, which was left in a stunned stupor before the first media timeout had even arrived.

“They got off to a good start,” Mobley said. “We just didn’t make shots.”

USC forward Isaiah Mobley secures a rebound in front of Arizona center Christian Koloko.
USC forward Isaiah Mobley secures a rebound in front of Arizona center Christian Koloko on Tuesday at Galen Center.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

By then, the already-slim chances of USC sticking in the title conversation were slipping away just as quickly. Nothing was falling from three-point range. Little was working elsewhere, either. Peterson, on a tear over the Trojans’ six-game win streak, couldn’t get a shot to fall, missing five of six in the first half. Mobley couldn’t do much better, scoring six while failing to record a single assist.

As the Wildcats extended their lead to 16, Enfield called a timeout, desperate to reverse the Trojans’ fortunes. Instead, they immediately turned the ball over, giving way to a streaking Justin Kier, who slammed home a one-handed dunk.

The highlight reel hardly slowed from there. There were more dunks and more three-pointers. Bennedict Mathurin, the Wildcats’ star wing, even threw a no-look pass behind his head in the lane for a streaking slam, adding insult to injury and an assist to an already sparkling stat line. He’d finish with 19 points, five rebounds, six assists and three steals.


A few minutes later, USC headed to the locker room at halftime having given up 51 points, the most it’s allowed all season.

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Feb. 28, 2022

It didn’t get much better after the half. As the Wildcats settled into cruise control, USC would cut the lead to 16, but that was as close it would get to escaping Arizona’s grasp.

Afterward, Enfield was asked whether he could find any positives in the Trojans’ trouncing.

“Not too many,” Enfield said, before reconsidering.

“The fans were great,” he said. “The DJ was outstanding.”