Down by 13 points earlier in the second half, USC had battled back behind the ability of Jordan McLaughlin and Julian Jacobs to get to the basket. The Trojans had trimmed the lead down to two points with three minutes remaining. Now a minute later, they were down by three points. The offense had scored on six of the previous seven possessions, but USC needed a big stop.
Utah couldn't get a good look as the Trojans settled into their 2-3 zone. The ball was sent back to the Utes' senior point guard Brandon Taylor, standing a step away from the midcourt logo. With six seconds remaining on the shot clock, he assessed where McLaughlin and Jacobs were standing at the three-point line at the top of the zone. Taylor took one dribble and pulled up six to eight feet behind the three-point line, launching a rainmaker that splashed through the net with two seconds remaining on the shot clock.
It was the dagger.
The Trojans didn't have an answer and fell, 80-72, to end their short run in the Pac-12 tournament in the second round for the second year in a row.
McLaughlin led all scorers with 24 points, including 20 in the second half, while Jacobs scored 16 points with eight rebounds and six assists. He had only one turnover. As a team, USC turned the ball over only five times. It was one of a number of statistical categories USC won: offensive rebounds, points in the paint, fast break points, points off the bench, points off turnovers. But Utah won the most important statistic: field goal percentage, making an astounding 60 percent of its shots.
Here's three takeaways from USC's hard fought loss to Utah Thursday evening in Las Vegas:
The reason Utah shot such a high percentage was likely top 10 draft pick Jakob Poeltl. USC held the 7-foot Austrian center to a reasonably quiet 14 points (5-of-7) and eight rebounds, but it was the freedom that he created for his Utah teammates that allowed them to hit their shots. After the Pac-12 Player of the Year dominated the Trojans in their only meeting this season, USC was determined not to let Poeltl be the one to beat it.
The Trojans fronted Poeltl any time it could in the post and collapsed with weakside defenders on any lob entry passes. But one of the things that makes Poeltl such a special player is his ability to read a defense and attack or pass out of double teams when he catches the ball. He only finished the game with four assists, but his initial pass wasn't always the one that set up the basket.
When USC went to a 2-3 zone, the middle was often soft because of the threat of Poeltl on the low block. When he wasn't getting double teamed with the ball, he was causing a secondary post defender to stay a step or two closer, leaving his teammates additional space. Utah's forwards all had big games because of the attention Poeltl drew.
Kyle Kuzma scored a career-high 23 points on 11-of-12 shooting while Lorenzo Bonam was well on his way to a career-high after scoring Utah's first 10 points of the game, but he played limited minutes after getting his feet tangled with Elijah Stewart on a fast break. Jordan Loveridge also gave the Trojans some issues with his ability to shoot from the outside from the forward position. He knocked down three 3-pointers and had 13 points and six assists.
"I thought our strategy was solid," USC head coach Andy Enfield said. "But give Utah credit. Their players, like Kuzma, stepped up and had a big game against us, and that's what happens. You try to take something away or maybe their first or second option, and if the third or fourth option beats you, then you lose."
Second Half Mac Attack
Jordan McLaughlin had just four points at halftime. With USC trailing by eight after a 9-0 Utah run to end the half, the Trojans needed McLaughlin to step up. Fellow point guard Julian Jacobs had carried USC in the first half with 12 of his 16 points, so it was McLaughlin's turn.
He came out of the halftime break red hot, scoring the first 10 Trojan points. McLaughlin was able to get by his defender at will in the second half and got to the rim and finished. He was 7-for-11 and rallied USC with his 20 second-half points.
Next Stop: NCAA Tournament
In the post-game news conference, Andy Enfield rattled off the Trojans' NCAA tournament credentials: "12 top 100 wins and five in the top 50." He talked about the toughness of the schedule in the Pac-12 and USC's big victories over Arizona, UCLA, Colorado, Oregon State, Monmouth and Wichita State -- all of which will be in consideration on Sunday.
"I think with our strength of schedule and how many top 100 wins we have, I think there is no question that we deserve to be in the tournament. I certainly wouldn't want to play us. We're very streaky and explosive, as you saw the last two games. But that's out of our hands. We respect the Selection Committee and what they have, and we'll be like a lot of other teams waiting on Sunday to see what the situation is."
The Trojans have made a drastic improvement on the first two seasons under Enfield, going from a 20-loss program to a team with 21 wins this season. All their metrics look solid, so expect to see the Trojans in the NCAA tournament next week. Where will they be seeded is the question? Almost every bracket currently has them as a No. 8 or No. 9 seed, which means they will be sent to whatever place the No. 1 seed in the regional is sent, which is often basically a home game. That means a potential matchup with a team like Oklahoma in Oklahoma City or North Carolina in Raleigh.
The Pac-12 season is complete for USC. The Trojans finish the first two seasons -- non-conference and conference -- with a 21-12 record and now await their destination for the NCAA tournament. The Selection Show will be Sunday beginning at 2:30 p.m. PST.
- There were 14 lead changes and five ties in tonight’s game.
- Utah now has an eight-game win streak this season and a seven-game streak against the Trojans.
- Utah finished the first half on a 16-4 run over the last five minutes of action. The Utes also made 12 of their final 13 shots in the first period after starting 5-13.
- Jordan McLaughlin, Julian Jacobs and Katin Reinhardt combined to score 43 of USC’s 72 points. The trio shot 22-44, while the rest of the team shot 8-26 combined.