Coming off a four-game winning streak, the Trojans had third place in the Pac-10 in their sight, and were looking to win their final two games of the regular season to improve their résumé for the NCAA Selection Committee.
Instead, after losing on Thursday at Washington State, 85-77, the USC men’s basketball team (17-13, 9-8) now needs to win Saturday to avoid finishing sixth in the Pac-10.
The Cougars (19-10, 9-8) jumped out in front early, starting the game on a 10-2 run. By halftime, The Trojans trailed 41-26.
USC came out of the locker room on fire, opening the second half on an 11-3 run. Senior guard Donte Smith made four three-pointers after halftime, sparking the Trojans’ rally.
“We started the second half hot,” Smith said. “We played with a lot of energy. If we would have come out like that in the first half, we would have won.”
Washington State bounced back and extended its lead to 16 points.
Undeterred, the Trojans cut the Cougars’ lead to one point with just eight minutes left in the game.
USC did not have enough depth to complete the comeback. Smith, senior guard Marcus Simmons and senior forward Alex Stepheson fouled out, forcing USC coach Kevin O’Neill to use walk-on James Dunleavy late in the game.
Eighty-five points is the most scored by an opponent against USC this season. For the game, the Cougars shot .547 and made .400 of their three-point attempts.
Junior forward Nikola Vucevic led the Trojans with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Freshman guard Maurice Jones had 16 points, and was 4-of-6 from beyond the arc. Junior forward Jio Fontan had eight points and a game-high seven assists.
Surprisingly, Washington State had the advantage in the post. Despite having two of the top three rebounders in the Pac-10, USC was outrebounded by eight in the opening half and six in the game. The Cougars outscored the Trojans in the paint by 14 points in the first half.
Simmons, USC’s defensive stopper, picked up two quick fouls in the first half and ultimately fouled out of the game. Washington State guard Klay Thompson, the leading scorer in the Pac-10, took advantage, scoring 10 points in the opening half and 22 points overall.
The Trojans conclude the regular season Saturday at Washington at 7:30 p.m.
“Saturday is now a must-win,” Smith said.
USC lost to the Huskies (20-9, 11-6) on Dec. 29 in overtime, 73-67, despite 28 points and 14 rebounds from Vucevic.
Washington won seven of its first eight Pac-10 games. Since then, the Huskies are 4-5 in conference competition.
Washington is led by junior guard Isaiah Thomas, who averages 16.9 points and 5.8 assists per game. With Simmons guarding him for much of the first match-up, however, Thomas only managed to score 10 points and had a game-high six turnovers.
Senior forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning contributes 16.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game for the Huskies.
Washington is a high-scoring team and leads the Pac-10 with an average of 85.4 points per game.
“We are not going to score 90, 100 or even 80 points like they do,” Fontan said. “We need to slow the game down.”