3-Pointer: USC can't get over hump vs. UCLA

LAS VEGAS -- Three takeaways from USC basketball's heartbreaking 76-74 loss to UCLA in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament at the T-Mobile Arena.

Andy Enfield had already taken off his jacket and placed it around his chair. The tie didn't get the same care as he hurriedly yanked at the knot trying to pull it free.

He was heated.

A block/charge call had sent the jacket away, but now a clearly blocked Thomas Welsh shot had been whistled and the steam brewing from Enfield's collar would have been best illustrated by a Looney Tunes cartoon.

"There were some officiating calls that went against us," Enfield said. "I won't comment on whether they were good calls or not, but they all went against us down the stretch. Jonah Mathews was guarding TJ Leaf and TJ Leaf backed into his chest and they called a block. He was just standing there. Elijah Stewart blocked a shot and they gave a two-shot foul.

"In a game like this, with one possession down the stretch, it's nice to get a few calls go your way, but unfortunately tonight they didn't. But that didn't determine the outcome of the game."

UCLA made three of the four free throws that accompanied those two questionable fouls. It was enough to keep UCLA over the hump as the Bruins beat USC, 76-74, at T-Mobile Arena to advance to the Pac-12 tournament semifinals.

The Trojans played hard with impressive defensive intensity all game. They battled back from woeful starts to each half, but could never find an equalizer as UCLA led from wire to wire. The Trojans had opportunities in the final four minutes, but after a stretch of making 8 of 9 field goal attempts and trimming an 11-point lead to two, USC missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw situation, turned the ball over and then had five consecutive field goal misses before Bennie Boatwright drained a three with four seconds left. 

The Bruins were able to inbound the ball and throw it ahead into the frontcourt without the Trojans being able to foul, running out the clock and securing a season series victory (barring an unlikely NCAA tournament matchup) for UCLA.

Jordan McLaughlin led USC with 18 points, finishing 7 for 15 from the field while Elijah Stewart scored 17 points off the bench, including hitting a trio of three-pointers. Boatwright and Jonah Mathews chipped in 11 points each, but were a combined 6 for 21. Chimezie Metu had a career-high 14 rebounds. He was saddled with foul trouble in the first half and had just five attempts in the game -- the first time since the fourth game of the season that USC's big man attempted five or fewer shots.

UCLA senior guard Isaac Hamilton led the Bruins with 22 points while forward TJ Leaf returned from an ankle injury to score 14 points with six rebounds and five assists. Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford combined for 20 points on 6 for 20 shooting while Thomas Welsh notched an 11-point, 11-rebound double-double.

Here's three takeaways from USC's 76-74 loss to the Bruins in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament on Thursday night:

Struggling from the Start

USC began the game in an 8-0 hole after missing its first eight shots. It could have been even worse had UCLA not missed some open looks that would have pushed it to a 13-0 or 15-0 advantage in the first four minutes. The Trojans began the game shooting just 1 for 14 in the first seven minutes, falling behind 14-3 and were at 4 of 23 from the field before getting things going in the final seven minutes of the first half. 

"Our best players didn't play very well in those stretches," Andy Enfield said. "Our starting lineup has to do a better job. They have to score the ball. You can't just go 0-fer."

Once a couple of shots started falling, USC was able to end the half on a 17-6 run to get back in the game, trailing by only three points at halftime. 

But after the break, it was immediately more of the same. Chimezie Metu hit a jumper on the Trojans' first offensive possession to make it a one-point game. UCLA followed with a 12-0 run making five of seven shots while USC missed six straight attempts.

"We're streaky. We're a streaky team offensively. When we get it going, we can score a lot of points in bunches," Enfield said. "We missed some easy shots tonight, especially to start the first and second half."

Bringing the D

How were the Trojans able to stay in the game in the midst of such shooting struggles? They did something they hadn't in three weeks -- play defense for 40 minutes, forcing 10 first half turnovers against a team that averages only 11.4 per game. USC contested nearly every shot and didn't give up the easy buckets that Washington got several times on Wednesday.

The Trojans fell behind by double-digits in both halves, but rallied because of their defending.

"Being aggressive on defense," Jordan McLaughlin said. "Having our defense turn into offense. We were having active hands, trying to create turnovers and make them take tough shots. We knew they would knock down a couple of them and a couple would go our way. Just playing hard for all 40 minutes."

USC kept the Bruins from getting out in transition, holding them to six fast break points. UCLA shot 41.2 percent for the game and 36 percent on three-pointers. 

"Everyone knows that UCLA is a good team, but their superpower is offense," Elijah Stewart said. "Some people say that we're streaky on offense. We have to accommodate our streakiness with good defense. The game could be 2-0. If you've got the two points, you've got enough to win if you play good defense theoretically."

Stew Gets Cooking

Elijah Stewart has been M.I.A. for nearly a month, scoring in double figures just once in the last six games after being one of the Trojans' top scorers throughout the first half of the year. Stewart broke out of his slump on Thursday, scoring 17 points on 6 of 10 shooting, including knocking down a trio of three-pointers for the first time since the UCLA game on Jan. 25. It hadn't been since the gam e before that UCLA matchup that Stewart had scored more than 15 points, going 11 games without eclipsing the mark before Thursday.

"He's a good player," Andy Enfield said. "He's been struggling. We're streaky. Elijah is always streaky. You saw a good side of Elijah tonight. He's been struggling lately with his perimeter jump shot and his decision making and tonight he played great. He played both ends of the court. He made shots, defended. He rebounded. When he plays like that, he's as good as any guard in the league."

Getting Stewart going should give the Trojans confidence heading into a probable NCAA tournament appearance next week. 

"It's big for us," Bennie Boatwright said. "He came out big. We need him to be aggressive like that because he's a really good player and a really good shooter and he can get to the rim."

"Stew is one of our leaders," Jordan McLaughlin said. "He's one of our older guys on the team. If we get him going, it just opens up a lot more stuff."

The Trojans will need to be firing on all cylinders next week if they want to make some March Madness noise and Stewart breaking out is a great sign toward that.

Up Next

With the loss, USC awaits Selection Sunday where they will find out if they are indeed in the NCAA tournament field of 68 and where/when/who they will play next week. Projections going into Thursday's game ranged from a No. 9 seed to a No. 12 

Highlights

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