USC can’t keep up with Michigan State in first-round NCAA tournament loss
A season spent climbing back from the brink, scratching and clawing its way from one week to the next, had given USC every reason to believe it could circumvent whatever setbacks might still stand in its way. So often had it survived slow starts or prolonged slumps that comebacks had come to seem like second nature for the Trojans, whose coach had recently called them his most improved in a decade.
But there were no footholds to be found Friday, or any emergency plans to put into motion. Months spent tempting fate finally foiled USC, which fell in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Michigan State, 72-62.
For the second consecutive season, the answers to what ailed the Trojans eluded them at the worst possible time, with their NCAA tournament lives on the line.
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“It’s just how the ball rolls sometimes in March,” senior guard Drew Peterson said.
This loss wasn’t a matter of a few bad bounces, though. It was a summation of all of USC’s worst tendencies this season, neatly packaged into a devastating defeat.
The Trojans once again started slow, digging themselves an 11-point hole early. Then, after finishing the first half on a tear, they settled for too many bad shots and sloppy possessions in the second, shooting 11 of 32 after the half. They gave the ball away 11 times, too, handing Michigan State 16 extra points off turnovers.
It was an all-too-familiar stretch for USC. Yet coach Andy Enfield didn’t seem to think it warranted any offseason soul-searching about his offensive philosophy.
“It’s hard to not make timely shots and turn the ball over,” Enfield said. “It was our guys losing the ball. The scoring droughts are usually either you miss open shots or guys try to do too much on their own, one-on-one, instead of just moving the ball and spacing and cutting. I know there’s a lot of pressure on these guys. The second half we got down. It is frustrating at times throughout the season. But for the most part our guys played the right way.”
It didn’t help that its leading scorer hit a wall when he was needed most. Boogie Ellis had been the engine of the Trojans’ offense for the last two months, averaging better than 22 points over his last dozen games.
His late-season breakout offered hope that USC might catch fire down the stretch, but it would take 17 minutes before USC’s senior point guard scored Friday.
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With Michigan State focused on shutting down Ellis and clogging the passing lanes, he never found his footing. Ellis finished with just six points, while shooting 3 of 12 from the field, a letdown performance eerily reminiscent of last March, when he struggled and was benched in USC’s first-round loss to Miami.
It was hardly the way Ellis or Peterson, who scored 11, hoped to close out their tenures as Trojans.
“I let my teammates down today,” Ellis said. “I played too fast today. I didn’t change my pace all year. I play with a great pace. But today I played a little bit too fast. So that’s on me.”
He wasn’t the only one who had trouble adjusting. After a week of preparing for Michigan State to fire away from the three-point arc, USC was confounded when the Spartans spent most of their time attacking the paint.
Few teams had defended the interior better this season than USC, but as the Trojans focused on guarding Spartans at the arc, Michigan State had little trouble working it inside where it scored 32 points, among the most any team has managed against USC this season.
“Points in the paint were significant,” Enfield said.
USC found some offense of its own on the interior as Joshua Morgan unexpectedly stepped into a scoring role in the first half. Morgan scored eight straight on four consecutive possessions, leaving the big man exhausted, barely able to stand during the ensuing timeout.
The burst from Morgan kept USC afloat for a while, but the Trojans never found the same energy again. As Michigan State came out of the half hot, making seven of 11 from the field, USC again fell into a slump. During a four-minute scoreless stretch later in the half, the Trojans turned the ball over three times in three minutes, the last of which led to a breakaway Spartan bucket.
With a 15-point Michigan State lead intact, the sea of green and white that had taken over Nationwide Arena roared in unison.
Any hope of a comeback was soon swallowed by the Spartans and their raucous faithful. Still, Kobe Johnson tried his best to whip one up, knocking down consecutive three-pointers late to cut the lead to nine. Michigan State responded by missing three straight front-ends of one-and-one free throws, giving the Trojans a sliver of hope with two minutes remaining.
Yet the comebacks that USC had conjured all season had, by that point, been exhausted. The Trojans missed their next four shots, finally done in by the obstacles they’d so often overcome this season.
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