Men’s basketball fell to the Utah Utes 77-70 at home Wednesday night. The Trojans were not able to overcome their struggles in the first half, though they followed with a strong second-half performance.
Utah scored 7 unanswered points to open the game, as the Utes were patient in their shot selection and the Trojans were unable to create any effective offense of their own. USC did not score their first points until freshman guard Elijah Weaver finished a floater three minutes into the half. Weaver was also able to hit a 3-pointer before Utah could counter, tying the game at 7-7.
Following a USC timeout, Utah continued to play at a gradual pace of play and scored 8 unanswered points. The Utes were able to break down USC’s defense with crisp passing and brought the score up to 15-7 after seven minutes of play.
The Trojans’ offensive attempts proved to be fruitless as they fell cold following their 7-point outburst. USC lacked an inside presence when junior forward Nick Rakocevic was subbed out, and they did not fare any better from beyond the arc, hitting only one of their first six 3-point attempts. This combination led to a stagnant offense that allowed Utah to control the game.
“[Rakocevic] is a big part of our offense and he’s a rebounder,” head coach Andy Enfield said.“But tonight was just an off night.”
The Utes dictated the pace of play and were able to draw fouls on USC to get to the free throw line on several occasions. The Trojans’ foul trouble was a product of Utah’s size advantage in the front court, which gave the Utes an edge on the glass — they outrebounded the Trojans 16-7 with six minutes left in the half. USC was unable to collect any rebounds on the offensive end to this point, taking away any opportunities for second chance points.
Utah established a commanding 20-point lead, but their offense cooled down as evidenced by their two shot clock violations and several missed shots. USC was unable to capitalize on these opportunities, however, and its field goal percentage dropped to 31.8 percent with three minutes left in the first half.
Utah’s freshman forward Both Gach forced USC to call another timeout following two consecutive 3-pointers. Following the timeout, the Trojans attempted to end the half on a strong note by scoring 6 unanswered points. However, they still faced a large deficit on the scoreboard, trailing Utah 37-23.
“We came out flat,” Mathews said. “[Utah] was hitting wide open threes.”
The opening minutes of the second half were not much of an improvement for the Trojans as their shooting struggles continued. USC’s only field goal through three minutes was a 3-pointer by senior forward Bennie Boatwright, while Utah continued to add to its lead and held a 50-28 advantage over the Trojans.
Utah showcased a strong presence from beyond the arc throughout the second half that helped it maintain its dominant offensive game. The Utes’ 29 3-point attempts for the game forced USC to defend them at the line at all times. Even when the Utes’ shots did not fall, the Trojans still felt the long-range threat.
Despite the large deficit, USC showcased a streak of their own 3-point abilities when Boatwright and junior guard Jonah Mathews combined for three made shots from deep at the midway point of the second half. This momentum shift was highlighted in the Trojans’ next offensive run, as Rakocevic dropped a behind-the-back pass to freshman guard Kevin Porter, who threw down an electrifying dunk to bring the score to 58-44 with just under nine minutes left in regulation.
Mathews refused to let the game get away from the Trojans, as he hit three straight 3-point shots. The Trojans appeared much more determined following this run and displayed strong defensive effort; however, the deficit still loomed following the first half blowout, and Utah was still comfortably ahead by a score of 64-53 with five minutes left in the game.
“We were playing hard enough on defense to get back in the game,” Enfield said. “Unfortunately, we just couldn’t get that lead down.”
The Trojans played at a very high level in the game’s final minutes, displaying energy on both ends of the court. However, they were ultimately unable to make the comeback as Utah made enough shots and free throws to hold on.
Mathews led USC with 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting, but he was the only Trojan to play truly well. Boatwright and Rakocevic were the only other players to score in double figures, and neither shot better than 44 percent from the floor.
Gach led the Utes with 15 points, while junior center Jayce Johnson had 13 points and 13 rebounds. The Utes made 14 of 21 attempts from the free throw line, compared to 7-for-11 for the Trojans.
The Trojans will face Colorado 7 p.m. Saturday at Galen Center. Colorado currently holds a 4-6 conference record after defeating UCLA at home Wednesday night 84-73.