Column: USC fizzled in front of a packed house, but the Trojans are still worth watching
With about three minutes remaining in the USC basketball team’s most recent game, Trojans football coach Lincoln Riley quietly slipped out of his courtside seat and disappeared into one of the tunnels leading out of the arena.
Don’t criticize Riley for missing the end of USC’s defeat to Arizona. If anything, he should be applauded for sticking around for as long as he did.
The poor guy lived in Oklahoma for seven years. Hadn’t he suffered enough?
Riley was subjected to USC’s worst performance in an otherwise stellar season, the Trojans trailing by as many as 30 points before settling for a 91-71 loss.
What a waste.
Coach Andy Enfield’s team has won 25 games and is ranked 16th in the country but remains the best-kept secret in Los Angeles. The Trojans will stay a secret until they can seize the kind of moment in which they froze on Tuesday night.
They hosted the second-ranked team in the country. They were on national television. They played in front of their second packed house of the season at Galen Center.
And they stunk up the joint.
Their failure to increase their program-record regular-season win total eliminated them from contention for the Pac-12 regular-season championship, which was claimed by the visiting Wildcats.
No. 16 USC was outplayed and outmatched from the beginning in the 91-71 lopsided loss to No. 2 Arizona on Tuesday at the Galen Center.
Students seated behind the north basket were ready to rush the court, as they did last month in a win over UCLA, but were instead sent trudging toward the exits.
Last year, the Trojans reached the Elite Eight for the first time in 20 years. But in the West Regional final of the NCAA tournament, with an opportunity to transform themselves into something more than an afterthought, they were overwhelmed by Gonzaga in an 85-66 loss.
The shame wasn’t in the loss, but in how the game was lost.
USC wasn’t ready.
Only three of UCLA’s top players have been part of a victory over USC. The Bruins will try Saturday to end a five-game losing streak to the Trojans.
The previous two sentences were the opening lines of a column I wrote after the Gonzaga game and they could have been the opening lines of this column.
Against Arizona, USC was behind by 14 points after 10 minutes and by 24 at the half. They made only 32.1% of their field goals in the first half, including 12.5% of threes. They had nine turnovers in the opening period.
“Whatever we did or didn’t do, that’s on me,” Enfield said.
USC’s top three scorers for the season — Isaiah Mobley, Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis — were a combined eight of 34 from the field. Peterson finished with 10 points, Mobley and Ellis nine each.
“Everybody has off games,” Enfield said. “But when all three of them have an off game at the same time, it really hurts us.”
Because of how often the Trojans’ big three missed shots or turned over the ball, the Wildcats were able to do what they do best, which is play in transition. Arizona made 55.6% of its field goals, including 48.0% of its threes.
What was unfortunate about USC’s off night was that it didn’t reflect who the Trojans have been this season or the upward trajectory of their program.
USC guard Isaiah White struggled this season as he juggled helping raise two children. Now he’s rested and ready to help USC go deep in another NCAA tournament run.
“All the students, the support the administration has given us, and our marketing and sales team, and our fans have been really special this year,” Enfield said. “Unfortunately, we did not reciprocate all the hard work that everybody did.”
USC also sold out its home game against UCLA.
“They always said, ‘If you build it, fans will come,’” Enfield said. “Well, we’ve been winning for seven years, and it’s nice to finally have this program being recognized by our students and our administration.”
The game Tuesday represented what USC basketball could be.
Hours before, students formed a line that wrapped around Galen Center. Keith Williams Jr. performed another spectacular rendition of the national anthem. Fans placed their arms around their neighbors’ shoulders and bounced as the arena’s in-house DJ played Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” There were chants of, “De-fense!” and “Go-S-C!” throughout the game.
What was missing was the win.
The Trojans will continue to pursue that program-altering victory, their recovery starting Saturday with a game at UCLA before they play in the Pac-12 tournament as the second or third seed.
Perhaps their next chance will come in March in the NCAA tournament. Or next year, when they welcome what could be Enfield’s best recruiting class at USC.
When an opportunity presents itself again, the Trojans had better be ready. They owe themselves that much, to play more of their home games in a sold-out arena, to have the kind of fan support that matches their winning record.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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