The frustration seemed to radiate from head coach Andy Enfield as he discussed his team’s 73-61 loss to Nevada on Saturday. He pointed to a disappointing second half personified by an inefficient offensive performance.
“We struggled to make open shots when we took them and also took a couple contested to let them go on that run,” Enfield said. “Congratulations to them, they deserved to beat us.”
Nevada proved why it is one of the country’s elite teams with a 27-9 run to open the second half, taking a 61-44 lead with 11 minutes left. The Wolfpack took advantage of questionable shot selection by USC during this stretch and got hot from the field, making 9-of-10 field goals including a 4-of-5 mark from 3-point range.
The Trojan offense went cold after halftime, shooting 10-of-28 from the field in the second half, including 2-of-10 from three. USC scored just 26 second half points, nowhere near the output necessary to keep up with a team like Nevada, even if the Wolfpack had continued to miss shots and turn the ball over.
“We expect more of our upperclassmen to understand when the other team has scored 4, 6, 8, 9 points in a row, that at that point you have to take a great shot,” Enfield said.
On the other side of the ball, USC struggled to contain forward Jordan Caroline, as the senior used his burly frame to bully the Trojans out of the high post repeatedly and finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Although Caroline shot just 9-of-22 from the floor, he was Nevada’s biggest impact player. His strength and intensity were never more prevalent than on a two-handed alley oop flush in the final seconds of the game to put the finishing touches on the Wolfpack’s win.
“Caroline absolutely killed us,” junior forward Nick Rakocevic said. “We gave him a lot in the paint, just kind of gave him everything he wanted. We just got to get better.”
The second half was especially hard to swallow because USC led 35-34 at halftime. The Trojans brought energy from the beginning, playing harder than they had at any point this season. They played with active hands on defense, deflecting a lot of passes en route to five steals and 9 points off turnovers in the first half.
There were positives to take away. Enfield said he was happy with his team’s defense, which held a Nevada team that averaged 90.1 points per game coming into the day to 73, their lowest output of the season.
“Defensively, I thought we did well enough tonight to give ourselves a chance to win,” Enfield said. “A team that averages 90 points, you’re not going to be able to hold them down the entire game. But when they go on runs you have to score with them, and we didn’t do that when they went on that big run.”
They also held Caleb and Cody Martin, the Wolfpack’s duo of twin senior guards, to a combined 20 points. This is especially impressive considering Caleb entered the Galen Center averaging 21 points per game.
“We did a good job on the twins,” Rakocevic said. “We played them well. But it takes a whole team. Two guys can’t be guarding another two guys, it takes everybody [to guard them].”
But USC’s offense let the team down in this one. In their lowest scoring output of the season, the Trojans shot 43.3 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from 3-point range. USC shot only eight free throws and received 14 combined points on 6-of-24 shooting from junior guard Jonah Mathews and senior forward Bennie Boatwright, both of whom shot 1-of-7 from behind the arc. Rakocevic led the Trojans with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
The Trojans proved they could compete with top-flight teams like Nevada in the first half. The difference between USC and those schools is their composure and consistency. The Trojans, perhaps feeling pressure to perform against a top-five program, lost their way mentally at times against the Wolfpack, hoisting up ill-advised attempts early in the shot clock and picking up costly fouls. It resulted in a subpar second half in which the Trojans never gave themselves a chance to to win.
Enfield summed up the second half by pointing out an airball, two missed open 3s and an open shot in the lane. USC went 1-for-6 in the final four minutes of play.
“The first half is a good sign we can be a top team. We have to come out better in the second half,” Rakocevic said. “When the shots aren’t falling, you have to stay composed and do it on the defensive end.”
The Trojans will have another chance against TCU Friday at the Staples Center.