Two undefeated teams tipped off at the Galen Center on Sunday: the No. 16 Texas A&M Aggies (5-0) and the No. 10 Trojans (4-0).
The matchup was heralded as USC’s biggest non-conference test, a rematch against an Aggies team that returned all its starters from a year ago and added five more scholarship players. Last year, the Trojans won in College Station 65-63 after some last-second De’Anthony Melton heroics. This year, the hero sat out due to eligibility questions (he has yet to play this season), and USC missed him sorely throughout in a 75-59 loss.
“It was a little different (without) De’Anthony,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “He played great last year. We just didn’t play as well as they did.”
The game was supposed to be a barometer for the two teams, both national championship contenders, but USC, despite being the higher-ranked team, looked like David facing Goliath — if David forgot his slingshot.
“I thought our defense was good enough to win,” Enfield said. “Our offense was not.”
The Trojans trailed for most of the game, but they managed to square the score at 42 with 14:15 to play in the second half. Then, Texas A&M embarked on a 19-3 run over the next 7:41 that sucked the energy out of the Galen Center. With 8:34 remaining and the Trojans trailing by 16, Enfield called a full timeout.
The team initially responded well; junior forward Bennie Boatwright, still scoreless, notched 5 points in under a minute. Then, senior guard Jordan McLaughlin pocketed a 3-pointer to cut the Aggies lead to 10. The score was 63-53 with seven minutes to play with plenty of time for a comeback.
But the Trojans could not shoot well enough to overcome another deficit. For the game, USC shot 20-of-71 (28.2 percent) and 7-of-27 (25.9 percent) from 3-point range. Enfield said it was the worst shooting performance a USC team has had in his five years with the program.
“It just deflates you,” Enfield said about missing so many shots. “We kept missing easy shots — shots the that we normally make.”
McLaughlin, the captain, kept urging his teammates to shoot, but nothing was falling.
“We know we have a lot of fight in us,” he said, “(but) it kind of was a little deflating.”
Texas A&M’s length interfered with the Trojans’ offense. The Aggies, anchored by reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year center Robert Williams, blocked seven shots and disrupted several more plays at the rim. McLaughlin thought he missed a few floaters he otherwise would have made against a team with shorter players.
USC, which has four starters who average double-digit points, is supposed to be built to win these sorts of contests. When one player goes cold, another player is expected to heat up. Against a team with great post-defense, the Trojans are supposed to compensate with more 3-pointer makes.
Yet, on Sunday, every starter struggled and the offense was ice cold. Sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic did his best to spark the team off the bench — in 12 minutes in the first half, he had 11 points and six rebounds, but in the second half, he did not score.
“Everyone just needs to do their job,” McLaughlin said. “Tonight, Nick did his job.”
But, for USC, not enough players did.