This was it: the USC men’s basketball team’s final regular season game, against the disappointing Washington State Cougars, no less.
The end to a tumultuous season filled with more twists and turns than an unpredictable fiction novel. The last chance for the Trojans to prove what they are made of before their NCAA tournament fate would be determined in the single-elimination Pac-12 conference tournament.
But for the second time in as many games, the Trojan (14-17, 9-9 Pac-12) came up short. They were thrashed 76-51 by the second-worst team in the Pac-12 conference. Sure, the Cougars (13-18, 4-14) were fresh off an impressive win over the Pac-12 regular-season champion UCLA Bruins, but still, that wasn’t an excuse for the lackadaisical performance USC put on. It was easily one of the worst losses of the season.
The Cougars amassed a 6-0 lead and never looked back. There were backdoor cuts, hard screens and a flurry of crisp passes, each dissecting the Trojans’ defense bit by bit. The Trojans were forced to deploy a 2-3 zone at about the 10 mark of the first half. It worked at first, but then the Cougars figured out where the gaps were and the embarrassment continued. Washington State only turned the ball over five times.
The game was all but over at halftime, with the Cougars enjoying a 39-20 lead. USC shot just 28.8 percent in the first half, continuing its struggles from the Washington game. For the game, the Trojans weren’t much better, shooting 33.9 percent. Their 3-point shooting deserted them — USC shot just 4-of-24 for the night, or an anemic 16.7 percent. And once again, the Trojans were dominated on the glass, 45-34, routinely giving the Cougars multiple shot attempts on a possession.
One of the beneficiaries was Cougar senior forward Brock Motum, who slithered his 6-foot-10 frame around Trojan defenders en route to a season-best 31 points on 11-of-22 shooting. In the first half alone, Motum scored more points (21) than the Trojans themselves did (20).
But Motum did more than score. He kept possessions alive with his three offensive rebounds and 10 rebounds overall. He had two blocks and two steals. He wanted this game on his senior day more than USC did, and his effort and intensity showed as much.
“We couldn’t stop Motum,” USC interim head coach Bob Cantu said. “He had 21 at halftime. That was a big problem. We kept coming back between man and zone to try to find a way to guard him, and we struggled defensively, got down in a hole and weren’t able to make a shot.”
Cougar redshirt sophomore Royce Woolridge chipped in 25 points, including three 3-pointers in a row in the second half to permanently separate the Cougars from the Trojans.
There were a couple of bright spots for the Trojans, though.
Junior guard J.T. Terrell had 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and he did more than his fair share to lead USC from down 19 at halftime to down five with 13:43 remaining. Senior guard Jio Fontan, playing through a right-hand injury, had nine points and six assists.
Meanwhile, the Trojans’ 18-4 run was arguably the best stretch of basketball by either team, but it was short lived, making way for the Cougars’ eventual run to seal the game.
“I was happy with our fight in the second half to get down to five,” Cantu said. “We kind of used so much energy to get out of that hole that we weren’t able to get over the top.”
USC will head into the Pac-12 conference tournament as the seventh seed, set to face the 10-seed Utah Utes at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The Trojans defeated the Utes 76-59 in their lone meeting in Utah, but if their last two games are any indication, they can’t afford to overlook any opponent. If the Trojans defeat the Utes, a second-round matchup with the Cal Golden Bears awaits them.
Things definitely did not go as planned in the state of Washington. The Trojans left with two losses in two winnable games. They shot 35.7 percent for the trip, a free-flowing offense gone cold and stagnant. Any momentum they had mustered after their sweep of the Arizona schools is gone. But it’s how they respond that will determine how they are remembered.
“We’ve had some tough losses and we’ve rebounded and we’ve had some huge wins,” Cantu said. “We’ve got to adjust and we’ve got to be ready to go on Wednesday.”