USC freshman guard Jonah Mathews rose up and fired from the corner. The shot could cut Arizona's lead to single digits with three minutes to go, getting the Trojans back in the game. Instead, it clanked off the McKale Center rim along with USC's upset hopes on Thursday.
Eventually the Trojans did trim the deficit down to seven points with 1:49 to go. They needed a stop and a basket. But just as he had at the Galen Center a month ago, Wildcats freshman Lauri Markkanen proved to be the Finnish closer. The 7-foot forward drove by Mathews and scored with his left hand to seal the game. On the other end, USC forward Bennie Boatwright was blocked by the smallest man on the court, Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
"We played hard," Boatwright said. "We just didn't get stops down the stretch and they came out with the win."
"We're right there. We've played the number four, five and six teams in the country in consecutive games with two on the road," USC head coach Andy Enfield said. "Oregon was a one possession game with two and a half minutes left. This game, we were able to hang in there and we played hard. We're close. We have to keep getting better as a team. We're 21-7. We're still young and learning and we have to keep improving."
It was a reverse effort for the Trojans, who started strong for once, only to succumb to the home team that has won 70 of 71 at the McKale Center. USC used an 18-4 run to pull ahead by as many as nine points in the first half only to see the Wildcats (26-3, 15-1) do what the Trojans have done so well this year, battling back with strong end-of-half runs. Arizona made four of five 3-pointers, including an Allonzo Trier halftime buzzer beater, in the final 2:40 to close out the half with a 12-2 run that turned a deficit into a five-point halftime lead that USC was never able to catch up to.
Trier finished with a game-high 25 points, making 7 of his 11 shots, including four 3-pointers. As a team, Arizona lit it up from outside, making 11 of 20 three-pointers.
"They're good shooters, but when they shoot 11 for 20 from the three-point line that's above what they normally shoot or what any team normally shoots, so give them credit," Enfield said. "They made their shots when they had to."
Boatwright led USC with 23 points on 6 of 11 shooting, including 3 for 7 on deep attempts. Chimezie Metu notched his fifth double-double effort of the season with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Jordan McLaughlin added 13 points and De'Anthony Melton had 10 points, five rebounds and four assists.
For the game, USC shot a stellar 52.9 percent, but couldn't overcome Arizona's proficiency from the outside or the 12 additional field goal shots that the Wildcats took more than USC.
Here's three takeaways from USC's 90-77 loss to the Wildcats Thursday night:
In the second half, Arizona went on a 20-6. USC turned the ball over four times during a nearly six-minute stretch and the Wildcats got to the rim and couldn't miss, making nine of their 10 attempts, including six layups. The Trojans were suddenly down by 16 points and in trouble of seeing the game quickly descend into the final moments of the UCLA game last Saturday when the Trojans stopped fighting.
But instead, USC showed some heart and some moxie. It scored the next six points. Arizona pushed the lead back to 16 with five minutes left, but the Trojans used an 11-2 run to have a chance in the final two minutes. It was the proverbial "moral victory." USC hadn't won the game, but had showed some heart.
Andy Enfield said it after the game and Bennie Boatwright and Jordan McLaughlin echoed it not long after.
"We got better this week."
Enfield said the Trojans had two good practices this week. McLaughlin called it a rough week of practice, but meant it "in a good way because everyone got better."
The coaching staff questioned USC's toughness and worked to improve that before Thursday night's game. McLaughlin said the players were put through "different drills that questions your heart." Rather than folding like last week, USC had shown some, playing hard and battling back to make the game a little more interesting at the end.
***The practice efforts were physical enough that McLaughlin wrenched his back. He spent his time on the bench throughout the game with a heat pad to keep it from stiffening up. "My back is killing me a little bit, but it should be alright."
When Arizona got into an offensive flow, USC didn't have an answer.
"We just could not stop them in the second half. They had it rolling on offense. They made 11 threes on 20 attempts and they had the inside-outside game working. We were trying to take the three away and then we tried to double the post and they kicked it out and make another three.
"It's hard to guard Arizona when they're shooting the ball at that level and also their big guys -- Markkanen and [Dusan] Ristic -- are such good back-to-the-basket players so give Arizona credit. They really played well offensively."
In the first half, USC's guards couldn't stay with their man on ballscreens creating an opportunity to drive and kick. In the second half, USC's forwards couldn't stop Markkanen and Ristic one on one. The help defense that was needed in both situations led to open looks on the perimeter and Arizona knocked those down with Trier making four, Jackson-Cartwright hitting three of four and Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons both making a pair.
Five Wildcats scored in double figures and all eight Arizona players that participated scored at least six points. It was a balanced attack that USC couldn't stop.
Bennie Beasting, But Not on Both Ends
At first, Bennie Boatwright tried to deflect the question. Asked about his approach in marquee matchups with opposing forwards, such as Arizona's Markkanen, he said he was more worried about the team, but then he couldn't help himself.
"But any chance I get, I'm going to go at it, no matter who it is in front of me."
Boatwright relishes in facing off against another highly touted player and stepped up his offensive game in the situation once again, scoring 23 points. He did it outside with three 3-pointers, but he also flexed his muscles inside, using his body for some tough points in the paint and also getting to the free throw line for eight attempts.
He finished with four rebounds and two assists, but did not record a defensive statistic, which is what stood out to Enfield:
"Bennie played well offensively with the exception of his four turnovers. He shot the ball pretty well. He made some plays. He made a couple of nice passes. Defensively, he needs to keep getting better and rebound the ball at a higher level, but that's development. He's a young sophomore, so it's a developmental time.
"He's improving and you can see his body movements are better than when he first came back. He's more fluid and he's able to play for longer stretches without coming to get a break. He's getting there. We need him to perform on both ends of the court for us to get to where we need to go."
USC has two days to prepare for a huge game at Arizona State. The Trojans need to take care of business against a 13-16 (6-10) team that is capable of getting hot and competing with anyone, such as their 71-70 loss to Oregon earlier this month. The key will be forcing the Sun Devils into tough shots, particularly leading scorer Torian Graham (18.5), and dominating on the offensive end where Arizona State doesn't want to be.
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