Despite riding the No. 9 team in the country tightly for most of Friday night, USC walked away from the weekend with two losses to Arizona State and Arizona.
Mistakes in the final minutes of the ASU game and a slow start against Arizona gave the Trojans a tough final weekend in the Galen Center.
“It was a difficult and disappointing weekend for our program going into tournament play,” head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke said. “We did not play [Sunday] the way we know our team is capable. Players have to show up ready to play in order for us to win.”
The weekend opened against Arizona State, a top-10 ranked team that USC had already challenged once this season. It wasn’t a game of offense but rather a high-intensity matchup of two physical defenses hungry to prove their dominance. It was the type of night where every missed basket or sloppy foul felt like it could cost the game.
The first half was a triumph for the Trojans defense as they held ASU to a total of 16 points. The defense locked down both at the 3-point line and in the paint to force the Sun Devils to earn points intermittently off free throws and rebounds.
Although they kept pace with the Trojans, ASU was unable to settle into an offense and score off of set plays throughout the first half. They shot only 27 percent from the floor and were 0-for-4 from the 3-point line. Meanwhile, the Trojans shot only a little better at 28 percent and struggled from the free throw line, but aggressive post play from sophomore Kristen Simon and senior Temi Fagbenle kept the team alive and competitive against the Sun Devils.
ASU pulled ahead by seven points, but the team battled back through consistent defense and a tight team chemistry. When Jaco missed a light pass from Simon with under six minutes left to play, Simon grabbed her point guard’s hand and patted her on the waist, shouting encouragements over the referee’s whistle. On the next play, Jaco stole the ball and drove it in for a layup. The play after that, she drew a foul and sank both free throws to bring the score back within 3.
After jockeying back and forth for several plays, the game came down to the wire, with USC trailing by two points. With 30 seconds left, Fagbenle was fed a wide-open layup and took her shot, but the ball ricocheted short and into ASU hands. Despite fouling, the Trojans took their second last-second loss of the season to the Sun Devils.
The weekend’s second game was not any easier for the Trojans as they faced up against Arizona. The Wildcats had similarly struggled throughout this season’s conference play, but by outshooting the Trojans twice as much in the second quarter, created a sizable lead that could not be overcome.
In the first half of the game, the Trojans allowed Arizona to shoot 51 percent, notching 26 points in the second quarter alone and only responding with 11. The slow defensive start allowed Arizona to get out to a 38-22 lead in the first half.
The second half saw an improved balance in both offense and defense, as the team slowed Arizona’s shooting to 34 percent and steadily outshot the Wildcats. Jaco in particular came alive in the final quarter, knocking down consecutive 3s and leading a relentless press to bring the team within two points in the final five minutes. But after Fagbenle fouled out of the game, the team struggled to find their offensive rhythm and fell behind to a seven-point deficit and losing 63-56.
Up next for the Women of Troy, who finish the season 18-12 overall and 6-12 in conference play, is the Pac-12 tournament in Seattle. They will take on Washington State in the first round on Thursday.
“That fourth quarter is what Trojan basketball looks like,” Jaco said. “We just didn’t have it early enough. But I think, as a team, we know what we’re capable of, and that’s the type of play we’ll be bringing into the tourney.”