Trojans flat from the start in 1st Galen loss

No fire in the first half as USC drops an 80-69 Pac-12 showdown against Utah. Trojans could have moved up to third but fall to fifth.

It was something of a showdown, Sunday's Pac-12 battle for third place between homestanding USC and Utah's Utes.

And then it wasn't.

Utah's lottery lock Jakob Poetl, all seven-feet of NBA early pick, put on the show. And USC, for the second straight home game, came out without energy and for the first time in 16 games at Galen Center despite a decent crowd announced at 7,931, went down without a great deal of fight.

There would be no comeback from a 40-30 halftime deficit. Not this time. Utah isn't Colorado. The Utes are now 21-7 (10-5 in the Pac-12). USC drops to 19-8 (8-6).

Just as there would be virtually no fast breaks for a USC team that used to, once upon a time, live off speeding up a game. Especially against a big, strong, smart, disciplined team that had way too strong an inside game, beating USC 38-28 on points in the paint.

Not that that should have surprised anyone. But still, USC chose to slug it out in the halfcourt with a team built to play that way as Utah's 23 assists, an opponent season high at Galen, on 30 field goals made clear.

Poetl not only hit on 11 of his 13 field goal attempts and seven of his eight free throw attempts (more than double the USC team's puny three of six for the entire game), the Vienna, Austria product had six of his 13 rebounds on the offensive end, often volleyballing over USC players even when they were blocking him out.

"He absolutely dominated us. We didn't have an answer for him, we didn't have any answers," said Julian Jacobs, whose 17 points, combined with fellow point guard Jordan McLaughlin's 20, were pretty much the sum total of the USC offense. No one else scored more than five.

And while the Utes were pretty much foul free in a first half that saw USC not get to the line once (and not until at all until well into the second half or "with 13 or 14 minutes left," Andy Enfield said with a shake of his head, when USC shot its first free throw).

Blame that more on an out-of-synch, unagressive USC offense than on the hapless Pac-12 officials who were, as always, a step late throughout. Although having four Trojans with two personals in the first 20 minutes and rotating out of the game didn't help, Enfield said.

So USC's 20th win will have to wait. As will the Trojans' move to third in the Pac-12. They'll be fifth now behind a Cal team that's won all 16 of its home games if the Bears hold on at Washington State and USC will have to beat them in Berkeley next week.

This was also USC's sixth straight loss to Utah, the last win coming in 2013 the day after Kevin O'Neill had been fired during the season. But this loss was more than just another W for the Utes.

Utah showed it knows who it is and how it has to play to win. USC did neither. Which is why the Utes looked so much at home here. And USC did not.

And at a time in the season when a young team should start to show it knows who it is and how it has to play, USC came out for only the second straight Galen game this season and laid a first-half egg, much like against Colorado.

"I don't really know," Jacobs said, "I don't know why we came out flat. And why we wait to turn it up. Today it cost us."

"We just had a bad night," said 6-11 USC center Nikola Jovanovic, whose four points and five rebounds were just overwhelmed as he tried to stop Poetl. "It was a bad team effort."

But why? In the biggest game of the year so far with a decent crowd and 15 home wins coming in here, why such a slow -- or to be perfectly honest -- no start?

"We need to play a little bit tougher," Nikola said. Why didn't they? "Honestly I don't know. Maybe that's a question for the coaches."

USC did have one run when they played like the USC team that can play against good teams. And Utah Coach Larry Krystkowiak wouldn't let it go, talking about "that run where we had four straight turnovers and missed two shots and played far from perfect on defense" as USC almost got back in this one, down just 49-44.

But the energy USC showed there was soon gone. And Utah just kept on keeping on, Krystkowiak said, keeping USC off the line, defending well as a team, rebounding the ball.

"Defense wins championships," he said.

"We're on a roll," Poetl said of the sweep of the two LA schools. "I really don't know how to explain it . . . it feels great . . . it's fun to play basketball like that."

Not so much fun for the Trojans who will head up to the Bay Area in a season when the road has not been kind to USC.

"We have to put this behind us," Jacobs said, dreading what Monday's film session will be like. "We have to come ready for Stanford and Cal. We have to come out in the first half with energy, we have to stop playing catch-up, especially if we want to go to the tournament.

"These are must-win games for us. Today the coaches talked to us about this being a must-win game for tournament projections. It's imperative that we win out."

Right now, the imperative would seem to be to come out with an energy and focus and a game plan geared to bringing out the best in a team that doesn't seem to know what exactly that is.

Figure that out and the rest will follow.

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