After suffering back-to-back home losses, sloppy offensive play and a lackadaisical defensive effort in the second half at Stanford, the Trojans dropped their third straight game Wednesday. Although they led for much of the contest, the Trojans suffered from poor execution late in the game, resulting in a 79-76 loss to Stanford.
“The biggest takeaway is our upperclassmen,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “We have to finish games and they have to do a better job.”
With just two games separating the second and ninth seed in Pac-12 standings, each game is a must-win for USC if they have any hope of securing a first round bye in the Pac-12 tournament — a privilege granted to the conference’s top-four seeds.
Junior forward Nick Rakocevic, the Pac-12 leader in double-doubles and two-time Conference Player of the Week, came off the bench for just the second time all season. It didn’t seem to affect the big man’s game, however, as he made his first three shots upon entering the contest.
Much like the Trojans’ first meeting against Stanford, in which he posted 23 points and 10 rebounds, Rakocevic was an interior problem the Cardinals couldn’t seem to solve, as the forward finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds Wednesday.
Freshman guard Kevin Porter had by far his best performance since his return from suspension, displaying several of the qualities that cause many to tout him as a potential first-round draft pick. A combination of strong finishes, shifty dribbling and decisive dimes pushed the freshman to 10 points in the first half.
The first half effort from Porter was the most aggressive assertion of his talent all season. At one point, as the Trojans found themselves on the wrong end of a 15-4 run, the freshman beat his man off the dribble and powered a dunk through the rim and into the third row.
A lackluster start to the second half filled with lazy passes and matador defense from the Trojans led to Stanford cutting their deficit to just 2 points five minutes after halftime.
Senior forward Bennie Boatwright and junior guard Jonah Mathews tried to slow the Cardinal momentum, drilling back-to-back corner threes, but the hot shooting didn’t transfer over to the remainder of the game.
Ultimately, the sloppy play on offense, along with a lethargic effort on defense, led to USC trailing for the first time since a layup from Stanford sophomore forward Oscar da Silva placed the Trojans down 2-0 at the start of the game. Foul trouble for two of USC head coach Andy Enfield’s best playmakers, Boatwright and Porter, left the Trojans with no clear weapon to stop the bleeding on the offensive end.
Stanford’s 7-foot senior center Josh Sharma struck USC through the heart with each rim-rattling dunk he delivered. The Trojans’ failure to box Sharman out evidenced a lack of effort and resulted in Sharma finishing the game with 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting.
After being tied at 64 points with just under six minutes to go in the second half, the Trojans operated their best half-court offense of the game, but each USC layup or set of free throws was met with a Stanford 3-pointer, keeping the Cardinal in the game. Furthermore, A lazy pass from Rakocevic to Boatwright resulted in a turnover that gave Stanford the opportunity to win the game.
On the next possession, Stanford freshman point guard Bryce Wills blew past his man and finished through three Trojans to push the Cardinal to a 77-76 lead. Boatwright’s heroics fell short, as his go-ahead jumper attempt hit the front of the rim and signaled the end of the game.
“He [Boatwright] had a good look and just missed it,” Enfield said. “That didn’t decide the game.”
USC shot well from outside, making 7-of-12 from beyond the arc. This clip stood in stark contrast to Stanford’s 31.6 percent mark from downtown. The Cardinal responded with a well-rounded offensive effort; five players scored in double-digits, led by sophomore forward KZ Okpala’s 18 points. Okpala was a menace on both ends, contributing four steals in addition to his offensive work.
Boatwright led the Trojans with 19 points, followed closely by Mathews’ 16 points. Porter struggled to gain any traction in the second half, going scoreless and finishing the game with a 4-of-12 shooting performance.
This was an even game in virtually every statistical category. No team dominated the glass or forced a lopsided number of turnovers, and both sides had to know this bitterly contested conference matchup would go down to the wire. In these types of games, the team that executes best in the final minutes will emerge victorious, and on Wednesday night, that team was Stanford.
The Trojans will attempt to bounce back Saturday when they face Cal on the road at 5 p.m.