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USC escapes with a sloppy win over Washington in Pac-12 tournament

Washington's PJ Fuller and USC's Joshua Morgan scramble for the ball.
Washington’s PJ Fuller and USC’s Joshua Morgan scramble for the ball during the first half of the quarterfinal round of the Pac-12 tournament on Thursday in Las Vegas.
(John Locher / Associated Press)
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USC had withstood plenty on its path to the Pac-12 Conference tournament. Brutal starts. Close finishes. Lengthy defensive lapses and unfortunate offensive slumps. Somehow, the Trojans seemed to always still find a way, even when they were at their worst.

They were pretty near that nadir again Thursday, if not dragging along the bare bottom of their all-too-familiar doldrums. They’d turned the ball over a season-high 23 times. Their top scorers had fallen flat. Almost every facet of their 40 minutes pointed toward an inexcusable quarterfinal loss, its first in the Pac-12 tournament under coach Andy Enfield since his first season as coach.

But against all odds, even as third-seeded USC tried again and again in the final minute to hand away its ham-fisted effort, it didn’t matter. The Trojans, in spite of it all, still emerged unscathed, at least physically so, in a 65-61 victory over sixth-seeded Washington. They advanced to face second-seeded UCLA in a semifinal game Friday night at 8:30.

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The Trojans escaped even as the final two of their turnovers came in the last minute. With 37 seconds left, Max Agbonkpolo threw an errant pass just as USC had taken a four-point lead. When Washington cut that lead to two, Drew Peterson lowered his shoulder into a Washington player just 10 seconds later, handing the Huskies yet another chance. They promptly gave it away again, as Isaiah Mobley had a loose ball stripped out of bounds.

“We were just making ways up [to turn the ball over],” Enfield said. “We couldn’t hold the ball. Three times the ball went straight through our hands. We couldn’t catch it with two hands. We stepped out of bounds twice. We got trapped and panicked and just threw the ball to nobody. It’s not like our freshmen were doing that. It was our upperclassmen. If they want to win more games in this tournament and the NCAA, they have to do a better job.”

Still, even the barrage of ill-fated mistakes couldn’t help Washington hit a shot late, as USC gave the Huskies every chance to send the Trojans packing after one night at the Pac-12 tournament. The Huskies missed 11 of their final 12 from the field.

And somehow, USC still had trouble putting away Washington.

Enfield preferred to focus his attention postgame on the fact that the Trojans had gotten away at all.

“Our players have played in a lot of big games,” Enfield said. “We’re 10-1 in games of 5 points or less this year. That’s a sign of toughness — it’s a sign of mental toughness and great defense when it matters.”

No. 2 Arizona held off Stanford 84-80 while Colorado beat Oregon 80-69 in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament on Thursday in Las Vegas.

March 10, 2022

Whether that’ll be enough to survive against UCLA on Friday remains to be seen, but the renewed defensive effort was the difference Thursday. As USC clamped down and made adjustments, Washington shot just 23.5% in the second half.

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But after lugging its first losing streak since last February to Las Vegas, USC looked like a team that ended its regular season on the wrong note.

Where the Trojans could’ve quickly dispelled any concerns Thursday about a potential postseason freefall, they instead inspired more questions about their trajectory in the upcoming NCAA tournament — namely, how they might turn around their sudden turnover problem, or how they would stop another star guard who came out as hot as Terrell Brown Jr.

USC struggled mightily to slow down Brown early as the all-conference selection opened by scoring Washington’s first nine points. Even as the Trojans blanketed Brown, offering help from every direction, the Huskies’ silky leading scorer still sliced through the lane with ease.

Washington's Terrell Brown Jr. shoots around USC's Isaiah Mobley.
Washington’s Terrell Brown Jr. shoots around USC’s Isaiah Mobley during the second half of the quarterfinal round of the Pac-12 tournament on Thursday in Las Vegas.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

He scored 16 points in the game’s first 16 minutes, and 21 points in the first half, ending his early onslaught with a high-arcing, fallaway three-pointer with time ticking away in the first half.

He’d only score two more in the second half, finishing with 23, as USC made a point of forcing the ball out of his hands after he’d put Washington on his back.

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The opposite was true of the Trojans’ top scorers, whom Enfield had called on earlier this week to step up.

Neither Isaiah Mobley nor Drew Peterson made much of an impression, hitting just seven of 16 shots for 18 points and combining for six turnovers. Both were held without a made shot until 12 minutes into the first half, when Mobley finally hit a layup. For Peterson, it took nearly 15 minutes before he sank a jumper from the top of the key.

Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s 23 points led UCLA to a 75-65 win over Washington State in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament on Thursday in Las Vegas.

March 10, 2022

Washington built an early lead over USC not only by way of Brown incinerating USC’s defense, but also by forcing early turnovers, five of which came in the first seven minutes.

Those issues would emerge again after the half, just as USC seemed to steady its shaky start. The Trojans fired off an 11-2 run, taking back the lead within five minutes of the half, only to turn the ball over six times over the next five minutes.

Those turnovers seemed as if they would be USC’s downfall. But again, the Trojans escaped, with no intention of leaving Las Vegas just yet.

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