After the USC women’s basketball team captured the nation’s attention with its incredible Pac-12 championship run last weekend, first-year head coach Andy Enfield and his men’s basketball team had their sights set on replicating the women’s performance. The 12th-seeded Trojans kicked off their Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas in a first-round matchup with the fifth-seeded Colorado Buffaloes at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Wednesday, but ultimately lost, 59-56.
The Trojans (11-21, 2-16) entered the contest with just two wins since January, and two losses to the Buffaloes (21-10, 10-8). In the first meeting between the teams in Boulder, the Buffaloes trampled the Trojans 83-62. The second meeting showed a different score, but the same result. USC suffered a tight 83-74 loss in front of the Trojan faithful at the Galen Center in mid-February.
On Wednesday, USC surprised the Buffaloes early, jumping out to a quick 4-0 lead at the hand of senior center Omar Oraby’s spinning post moves. But this advantage was quickly erased after a number of missed open looks.
Despite Enfield’s deep rotation with his bench, Oraby and junior guard Byron Wesley accounted for 16 of the first 18 Trojan points — eight points each — as Colorado climbed ahead to a 23-18 lead nearing the end of the first half.
As Colorado fans began to make their presence heard, senior guard J.T. Terrell swung momentum back into USC’s favor with a deep three-pointer. But a circus-shot layup by Wesley was off-target, ,leading to an uncontested Colorado alley-oop.
Coming out of the locker room at halftime trailing 29-27, the Trojans did not lose any intensity in the second half as they seemed to several times earlier in the season.
Through great interior defensive play by the entire USC squad, the Cardinal and Gold were temporarily able to hold onto control. When the team got in foul trouble, however, Enfield was forced to take defensive dominator Oraby out. Oraby picked up his fourth personal foul with seven minutes to go in the game.
“I was just trying to be physical with them and push them out, not letting them catch the ball deep,” Oraby said. “At the end, I got into foul trouble so I was trying to stay out of foul trouble and stay in the game.”
During his absence, the Trojans failed to convert a field goal for almost six minutes until Wesley once again absorbed contact at the rim and flushed in a difficult lay-up to close the gap to six points.
“We have to make open shots, and sometimes we’d go into stretches where we just missed wide open threes or we missed two transition lay-ups and a paint touch, so that’s the frustrating part,” Enfield said. “Our guys get frustrated because they know they’re playing pretty well, they just don’t make the shot. That’s what happened tonight.”
With under a minute to play, Wesley drove to the basket and finished inside, cutting the Colorado lead to three.
With 47 ticks remaining on the clock and in the Trojans’ season, Enfield commanded his team not to foul.
As the shot clock was about to expire, Colorado’s Xavier Talton launched an off-balance three that ricocheted off the right side of the rim. Frantically chasing after it, teammate Askia Booker claimed control of the offensive rebound. Falling out of bounds, Booker bounced the ball off of USC freshman guard Julian Jacobs’ leg, retaining possession for the Buffaloes with 11 seconds in regulation.
After a quick timeout, Colorado’s Josh Scott appeared to have an easy layup to seal the victory, but Jacobs, looking to make up for his previous mistake, had a different plan. The 6-foot-3 Las Vegas native met Scott at the rim, denying his shot off the glass. After a scuffle on the floor, the Trojans gained control of the ball.
Senior guard Pe’Shon Howard led the transition, dishing out a pretty pass to the hot-handed Wesley. Catching the ball in stride, Wesley released the ball as the final horn sounded. The game-tying shot fell just short, hitting off the front of the rim.
“Byron made every play that we needed from him the whole game, so I figured, ‘Why not let him finish it up?’ He had a running start,” Howard said. “It was a deep shot, but I thought it was good when it left his hand.”
Wesley finished the game with 23 points in 37 minutes, while Colorado’s Booker posted 21 in as many minutes.
Despite a disappointing final record, Enfield is pleased with his team’s performance this season and optimistic about the program’s future.
“I’m very appreciative of how hard the seniors that will not be here next year worked,” Enfield said. “They’ll have some great opportunities in a variety of different things, whether it’s to continue their basketball career or in the business world. But for those returning and for those recruits coming in, we’re very, very excited.”