Close games can be decided by any number of factors, but men’s basketball head coach Andy Enfield felt that his team’s 82-78 loss to Vanderbilt on Sunday at the Galen Center came down to two things: timing and player availability.
“I thought our players played hard; it was a good college basketball game,” Enfield said. “Unfortunately we didn’t make the plays down the stretch. We fought back and took the lead, and then we had some crucial turnovers and missed shots.”
The Trojans had their opportunities to win the game, leading 69-67 with just over three minutes left. But the Commodores emerged victorious because they executed, mainly at the free throw line. Vanderbilt made 11-of-12 from the charity stripe over the last three minutes. The Trojans were forced to play catch-up, and came up just short.
It didn’t help that USC was behind the eight ball for much of the night due to foul trouble. The Trojans had 26 personal fouls for the game, granting the Commodores 30 free throw attempts. Two of USC’s four leading scorers, freshman guard Kevin Porter and sophomore forward Jordan Usher, fouled out.
As Enfield pointed out, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the team wasn’t missing key contributors to injuries; senior forward Bennie Boatwright missed his second straight game while recovering from a knee injury and freshman guard Elijah Weaver has yet to return from a late August ankle surgery.
Although both are expected to return soon, their absence may have cost the Trojans a potential resume-building win for the NCAA Tournament against a talented Vanderbilt team.
“We got better today. We’re not at full strength,” said junior big man Nick Rakocevic, who compiled 19 points and 18 rebounds. “If we had Boatwright and Weaver, tonight would be a different story.”
The Trojans still could have won this game if they had performed better on the defensive boards. Vanderbilt had 19 offensive rebounds which they turned into 22 second chance points. The Trojans matched with 21 offensive rebounds and 18 second chance points of their own, but every extra opportunity they gave the Commodores put them at more of a disadvantage.
The Commodores had a freshman duo in guard Darius Garland and big man Simisola Shittu, a pairing that put Vanderbilt in position to win. Shittu was a menace in the paint, piling up eight offensive rebounds and 14 points. USC struggled to keep Garland out of the paint, and he led the Commodores with 19 points.
“[Vanderbilt’s freshmen] are extremely talented, they are great athletes,” Enfield said.
Porter carried the Trojan offense in the first half, pouring in 12 of his 14 points for the game. He continued to show his propensity for highlight plays, with multiple dunks and shifty isolation moves in the first half. When the Trojans struggled to get open shots against a stingy Vanderbilt defense early on, Porter entered and created offense by himself.
Porter played for a few minutes in the second half due to foul issues, but his teammates picked up the slack. USC got to the basket repeatedly on an 11-3 run to take a 47-45 lead early in the frame. The Trojans weren’t necessarily efficient on these looks, but the pressure on the basket drew Vanderbilt’s interior defenders and allowed easy putbacks.
“I was trying to force the pressure, push and break down the defense, find the open guy or hit the open shot,” said redshirt junior Derryck Thornton, who had 17 points and helped key the run with his dribble penetration.
USC also played better defense in the second half, forcing Garland into six turnovers.
“I was impressed with our effort. We played hard,” Enfield said. “We turned up the defense in the second half and limited their second shots.”
However, the Trojans fell just short due to some missed opportunities at the end of the game. Thornton struggled with an ugly turnover when the game was tied at 69 and a missed free throw that could have brought the Trojans within 1 point with 14 seconds left.
“Executing and being poised [is what USC needed down the stretch]. A lot of that falls on me as the point guard, get everyone to stay calm,” Thornton said. “We could’ve done a better job settling down and getting the shots coach wanted.”
The Trojans are 1-1 on the season and will host Stetson Wednesday 7 p.m. at Galen Center.