Late USC Rally Not Enough in Pac-12 ASU Tournament Loss

After a season spent trying to find a way back from the wrong side of the bubble, it looked like another win would be proof enough to convince any doubters about USC’s rightful place on the NCAA tournament field. One pitiful victory in the conference quarter-finals, and USC you could rest easy on Sunday selection.

But there are no guarantees for USC in Las Vegas, and there are no quiet nights ahead. If the committee still needed any persuasion, USC did not attach much importance to the case. 77-72 loss to Arizona State.

Now they will have to sit and wait with their fingers crossed for enough bubbles to burst before Sunday. Ironically, while this loss may have put USC in some degree of danger, it likely earned the state of Arizona a place on the battlefield.

“They just wanted it more than we did tonight,” USC point guard Boogie Ellis said.

Whether USC has earned its place in the NCAA standings prior to Thursday’s rout will no doubt be up for debate. Most forecasters seemed to assume that USC had already played its part after finishing 22-9 in the regular season. Anfield spent several minutes offering his own explanation while the players seemed unconcerned about their place on the bubble.

“I still feel confident,” said Kobe Johnson. “I know that we should be in it. I don’t know how the NCAA will put us, but if we are lucky enough to get there, we will have a huge trump card on our shoulders.”

However, nothing in the night’s performance indicated that the team intended to make a statement about its postseason status as Arizona State beat and lost against the Trojans from start to finish.

There was no such desperation on the part of the USC, at least until the last minutes, when the Trojans began to shoot from the depths. They hit 3-pointers on three straight possessions to cut Arizona State’s lead to just four points, providing a glimmer of hope during a disappointing evening.

USC’s last defeat in the first round of the Pac-12 ended the season 11–21, with Anfield leading the Trojans for the first time. This time around, his team had the guts to go for a much deeper run, but none of it worked out as planned on Thursday.

USC forward Kobe Johnson tries to pass, while Arizona State forward Jamia Neal defends.

USC forward Kobe Johnson (0) looks to pass the ball as Arizona State forward Jamia Neal defends in the first half of Thursday’s Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals in Las Vegas.

(David Becker/Associated Press)

USC broke up early and never recovered. He opened a stalemate from the field. He was stronger on the attacking boards, allowing Arizona State to score 21 second chance points.

It’s amazing that USC has been able to last this long. Tre White and Kobe Johnson are to be commended for that, as the two young Trojan wings together scored 31 points on 11 of 18 shots. The rest of the team scored 12 of 37 from the field.

Anfield pointed out that the hardships of the season had taken a toll on the team. The aching pains grew. This week, the cold has spread throughout the dressing room, which has prevented several players from training. Drew Peterson has spent a week treating a stiff back, while freshman Vince Iwuchukwu has dealt with a back injury that caused him to miss Thursday’s game.

Peterson said he only felt “a little better” than last Saturday, when the two teams last met. He fired just 2-of-12 from the field, leaving USC with a gaping hole in offense.

Five nights earlier, the two teams had lost despite Arizona State only shooting 29% from the floor, the second worst of the season. USC let them hang out anyway, even giving the Sun Devils the chance to send the game into overtime. They missed, and the Trojans breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that their tournament hopes were probably not realized.

There was no such relief on Thursday. Arizona State was eliminated 8–0 in the opening minute while USC struggled to get their first downed.

“We came out soft,” Johnson said, “and you can’t come out soft at this time of year.”

It didn’t get any easier for USC after that, as the Trojans looked like a team that ran out of gas, scoring a measly 26% in the first half with several zero stints of five minutes or more. At one point, they flipped the ball during four consecutive possessions, prompting Anfield to raise their hands on the touchline.

USC played much better in the second half. But by that time the damage had already been done, the conclusions had already been drawn. The return was unsuccessful, giving the committee food for thought.

“Where this takes us on Sunday is not my decision,” Anfield said.

But as far as the coach is concerned, his Trojans have already done enough. Even if they stumbled over the finish line.