Trojans edge Colorado in tough conference matchup

This weekend, USC men’s basketball ascended the Rockies to challenge Colorado at the Coors Event Center, the Buffaloes’ home court 5,430 feet above sea level. Even as the air thinned, the pressure mounted on the shoulders of the Trojans. After going 1-3 in their last four contests, the Men of Troy found themselves in desperate need of a victory in Boulder. On Sunday night, they gritted through a tough matchup and willed themselves back to .500 in Pac-12 play with a 71-68 win.

Their opponents exhibited equal ferocity. Once 10-3, the ease of non-conference play felt like a distant dream for Colorado, who entered the contest 0-4 in Pac-12 play.

The Buffaloes pounced early, taking an 11-point lead only minutes after tip-off, but one Trojan could not miss. Sophomore forward Chimezie Metu scored 20 of his team’s 34 first-half points on a nearly perfect 9-of-10 from the floor. On an unusual night, USC’s sharpshooting guards took as many 3-point attempts, but made only one. Meanwhile, Colorado, ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in 3-point shooting at 33 percent, shot 7-of-11. Turnovers prevented the Buffaloes from extending their lead, but they clung to a one-point lead at half.

In an exhilarating second-half, the teams traded points, and the lead swung like a pendulum. With Metu in foul trouble, USC sought other sources of offense. Junior guard Elijah Stewart dropped 11 points in the half, and freshman guard Jonah Mathews nailed a pair of timely threes. Nevertheless, USC never found its rhythm outside, finishing the game with a season-low 3-point performance: 3-of-19.

The Trojans hustled, though, refusing to drop a fourth game in five. They mustered 17 offensive rebounds and forced as many turnovers. While they scored 20 points off turnovers, Colorado scored only five. Thanks to Metu, they also won the battle in the paint, outscoring the Buffs 36-22. By doing so, USC successfully weathered Colorado’s storm of threes.

Yet, with 43 seconds to play, victory appeared to slip through the Trojans’ fingers. At the end of an outstanding defensive possession, Colorado’s Xavier Johnson heaved a Hail Mary from three to avoid a shot clock violation. By some miracle, his high-arcing shot found nothing but net, and the Buffaloes grabbed a one-point lead.

On USC’s ensuing possession, Metu got the ball in the post. He exploited his one-on-one matchup for the final time, nailing a jump hook to finish with a career-high 24 points. On defense, Metu stopped Colorado’s George King from getting a shot in the lane. He forced him to lose control of the ball, and Metu quickly recovered it and passed to Stewart. Stewart nailed both his free throws to give USC a 71-68 lead with 12 seconds to play.

Refusing to foul, the Trojans played stingy defense. King managed to launch a three at the buzzer, but the effort fell just short, and suddenly USC had won its first game in Boulder in program history.

Now at 3-3 in Pac-12 play, USC faces No. 16 Arizona at the Galen Center on Thursday night. After a weekend bout with Arizona State, the Trojans will remain at home to play No. 4 UCLA. With two ranked opponents on the horizon, Sunday’s win over Colorado could prove to be a key momentum builder.