USC's NCAA tournament dreams shattered in season-ending loss to Arizona

Arizona guard Caleb Love drives against USC guard Bronny James in the Pac-12 tournament.

For a few minutes, the dream looked plausible.

Five days after beating Arizona on its home court, USC was outplaying the Wildcats again with sticky defense and a snail’s pace that favored the Trojans.

A second consecutive upset would clear the biggest remaining hurdle toward USC’s hopes of winning the Pac-12 tournament and the resulting automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Unleashing a shrewd plan to counter an offensive juggernaut, the Trojans forced steals and grabbed offensive rebounds, irritating the Wildcats and their restless fans. Ten minutes in, Arizona — averaging a conference-best 89.5 points per game — had scored 12.

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Slowly, the formidable climb for a team with a losing record to keep playing deeper into March became too steep. The Trojans started getting sloppy with the ball. They couldn’t stop fouling. They were done.

Ninth-seeded USC’s ambitions — and its season — ended with a 70-49 clobbering by top-seeded Arizona in a quarterfinal Thursday at T-Mobile Arena that left the Trojans with their lowest scoring output of the season and their first losing record since 2019.

USC coach Andy Enfield pointed to his team’s slew of injuries and having been to four consecutive NCAA tournaments as reasons he did not consider this a disappointing season.

“Was it challenging?” Enfield said. “Absolutely it was very, very challenging. Disappointing? Absolutely not.”

Any comeback hopes were extinguished when USC senior guard Boogie Ellis fouled out with 7 minutes 25 seconds left after scoring only six points in his final college game. Ellis made the long, solitary walk to the bench before slapping hands with teammates, taking a seat and burying his face in his hands.

Arizona forward Keshad Johnson, left, and USC guard Boogie Ellis scramble for a loose ball in the first half Thursday.
Arizona forward Keshad Johnson, left, and USC guard Boogie Ellis scramble for a loose ball in the first half Thursday. (John Locher / Associated Press)

Frustration was the prevailing sentiment on an afternoon in which the Trojans (15-18) shot 35.7%, including six of 22 three-pointers (27.3%.). They were also badly outmuscled over the final 30 minutes.

During one pivotal sequence midway through the second half, Arizona’s KJ Lewis fought his way toward the basket for back-to-back putbacks that had Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd wildly celebrating on the sideline.

Lewis scored 15 points to lead five Wildcats players in double figures. Caleb Love, the Pac-12 player of the year, added 11 points after being held to two points on one-for-10 shooting during the Trojans’ 78-65 victory last weekend at the Galen Center.

Seeking its third consecutive conference tournament title, Arizona (25-7) advanced to face either UCLA or Oregon in a semifinal Friday evening.

Kobe Johnson scored 14 points and Isaiah Collier added 13 during the Trojans’ final game as a member of the Pac-12. It won’t be one they look back on wistfully.

“We did all that we could,” USC forward DJ Rodman said. “And sometimes in the grand scheme of things it's not enough. That's what happened today. We just came up short.”

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In the game’s early going, the Trojans kept pace despite their abysmal shooting. They were down by only two points when Ellis, their primary offensive weapon who had made back-to-back three-pointers, grabbed his head after hitting it on the hardwood during a hard fall. Ellis went scoreless the rest of the first half, airballing a step-back jumper and forcing a three-pointer that was way off the mark, as his team struggled to score.

More troubling, USC’s defense started to falter as Arizona closed the first half with a 12-2 push that included three-pointers from Pelle Larsson and Love. The Trojans’ 28-16 halftime deficit represented their season low for points.

Things were about to get worse for a team that bid farewell to a season and an era.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.