After two on-the-road last-minute losses to both UCLA and Arizona State, USC dropped its third-straight game as the Arizona Wildcats triumphed over the Trojans in an 81-67 victory on Saturday night in Tucson.
“This is the first game in the second half that the other team has outplayed us significantly and that’s why they beat us,” head coach Andy Enfield told reporters after the game. “But the other games we have been right there. Our team is playing good basketball. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to close out the last two games.”
Saturday night’s loss was USC’s ninth-straight loss at the McKale Center and, combined with USC’s 80-78 loss to ASU Thursday night, their sixth -straight road sweep in the state of Arizona.
Riding a two-game losing streak of their own, the Wildcats came into Saturday night’s game with significant defensive struggles.
In the Cats’ 78-75 loss at Washington and 82-74 loss to UCLA, Arizona allowed opposing shooters to hit a combined 19-of-38 from 3-point range (50 percent) and 62-of-125 (49.6 percent) from the field overall.
And while a USC defense that allowed UCLA to hit 12 of its 26 3-point shots vastly improved against Arizona State (6-for-23 from beyond the arch), USC’s 3-point offense hit a combined 17-55 (30.9 percent) over that same stretch.
As luck would have it, USC’s outside shooting suffered, while Arizona’s soared.
The Wildcats, thanks to step-up offensive nights from sophomore guard Rawle Alkins and junior guard Allonzo Trier, hit nine of their 20 3-point shots, including 5-for-10 in the first half alone.
USC, on the other hand, hit just six of their 19 shots with senior point guard Jordan McLaughlin hitting three-of-his-four from deep.
“Give Arizona credit, they played exceptionally well offensively,” Enfield said. “And when we had a chance to stop their runs, we missed some wide open 3’s and just some shots that we need to make if you’re going to try to beat a team on their home court like this.”
Despite these shooting struggles, USC forwards junior Chimezie Metu and sophomore Nick Rakocevic kept the game close for the Trojans early in the game.
After going down 14-9 with 14:06 left in the first half, buckets from Rakocevic and Metu put the Trojans up 20-18.
Unfortunately for USC, Arizona would proceed to go on a 19-11 run and close the first half with a 37-31 lead.
Alkins and Trier combined to hit 5-of-6 from deep downtown in the first 20 minutes as Rakocevic led all Trojan scorers with eight points off of 4-5 shooting from the field.
Usually a scoring and offensive threat, McLaughlin was held scoreless and assist-less for the first 10 minutes of play.
In complete contrast to the first half, McLaughlin would explode in the second half for five assists, 16 points and three 3-pointers off of 5-for-8 shooting from the floor.
Other than junior forward Chimezie Metu, who poured in 11 points off of 4-of-7 shooting, the rest of the USC offense was surprisingly ineffective.
The first four minutes saw McLaughlin and Metu combine for eight points as USC’s 10-0 run tied the game up at 41-41 with 16:19 remaining.
After a McLaughlin jumper put the Trojans down just 48-47 with 13:05 remaining, the Wildcats cruised to 33 points as Arizona’s bigs freshman DeAndre Ayton and senior Dusan Ristic dominated the paint.
While Ayton added 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting, it was Ristic’s team-high 12 points in the second half that proved to be the difference in what was a close game for USC.
Not to mention, the Wildcats controlled the offensive and defensive glass, out-rebounding the Trojans 40-22 in USC’s worst rebounding night of season.
The last time Troy was out-rebounded to this extent was against a Texas A&M squad that beat USC 75-59 at Galen Center earlier this year.
“The whole game, just going up against guys [who are] 7-feet, 250 [pounds], that’s going to be brutal for anybody,” Rakocevic said. “Just seeing those guys block to block, it was difficult, but they’re good players. They’re big-time players, so we’ve just got to get better, we’ll be alright.”
Rakocevic, who led the Trojans with nine rebounds, also led the team in personal fouls, fouling out with 4:37 left in the game as the Trojans were down 68-58.
Without Rakocevic, all of USC’s final nine points were scored by either Metu or McLaughlin, who finished the game with 18 and 16, respectively.
Noticeably absent was redshirt junior Shaqquan Aaron, one of USC’s better defensive and rebounding guards, who did not play due to a coach’s decision.
McLaughlin, who led all guards in scoring and assists, said after the game that a lack of effort contributed to USC’s biggest loss in Pac-12 play.
“This one we just didn’t keep fighting,” McLaughlin said. “That’s all we gotta do, keep fighting all the way until the end and even if we’re not making shots, we gotta keep fighting.”