A shorthanded USC men’s basketball team suffered another costly loss Sunday afternoon, falling to Utah 79-65. The defeat capped off a disappointing road trip in which the Trojans dropped two crucial games in the race for a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament.
After faltering down the stretch in a frustrating loss to Colorado Thursday evening, the Trojans were looking to rebound heading into Salt Lake City.
Sunday’s defeat marks USC’s first Quadrant 2 loss of the season, which is not ideal timing given the Trojans’ need for impressive wins down the stretch.
Senior forward Nick Rakocevic was battling an illness heading into the game and ultimately played just five minutes before being pulled for precautionary reasons by head coach Andy Enfield.
“[Rakocevic] hasn’t eaten. He’s lost 10 pounds,” Enfield said after the game. “It’s hard to describe how sick he’s been the last two days.”
After losing Rakocevic, USC suffered another blow to the rotation after freshman forward Isaiah Mobley picked up an ankle injury late in the first half. Mobley was kept out for the majority of the second half despite attempting to play through the injury at the beginning of it.
Still, the Trojans were able to stay within striking distance for the majority of the afternoon but could not close the deficit down the stretch.
After cutting the lead to as little as 4 points in the second half, a series of USC runs proved to not be enough as the team faltered in the final minutes of the game yet again.
USC was outscored by Utah 25-7 in points off turnovers. In a game that was decided by 14, USC will need to rectify this trend moving forward.
Additionally, USC had a forgettable night from the charity stripe once again, shooting an abysmal 6-of-16 from the line, continuing to cement its place as the worst free-throw shooting team in the Pac-12.
Enfield said the poor performance from the free-throw line along with several missed opportunities from the Trojans proved costly.
“We missed a lot of easy shots,” Enfield said. “We had open missed layups, missed some open threes and then we missed free throws. When you’re trying to win on the road down a couple of guys, you’ve got to make some of those.”
Despite the absence of two critical members of the rotation, USC was aided by timely contributions from multiple teammates, which was an encouraging sight heading into the most important games of USC’s season to this point.
Redshirt senior guard Daniel Utomi racked up 7 points and three assists in 26 minutes and sophomore guard Elijah Weaver picked up the scoring load for the Trojans, scoring 13 points on 10 shots to go with three rebounds.
Despite the loss, the Trojans can also be encouraged by yet another dominant performance by freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu, who posted his 10th double-double of the season and led a depleted USC frontcourt with 18 points and 12 rebounds in 38 minutes.
Okongwu’s performance on the glass was his best since his 14-rebound showing in USC’s double-overtime road loss to Oregon in January.
Sunday’s defeat extends USC’s losing streak away from Galen Center to four games, as the team’s last win on the road came two days after the aforementioned loss at Oregon in a 20-point blowout win at Oregon State.
With just three games left in the regular season — all of which are at home — USC will be looking to close out its season on a high note and enter the Pac-12 Tournament with momentum on its side. Conference matchups with the Arizona schools and a season finale with crosstown rival UCLA will have a heavy influence on USC’s seeding in the Pac-12 Tournament and ultimately its chances at a bid in March Madness.
Despite the upcoming slate of games, Enfield believes that the team doesn’t need to be perfect moving forward, choosing to focus on each game individually instead.
“We’ll take it game-by-game,” Enfield said. “We know that the Arizona game is big for us, they’re a ranked team and they’re very good. We just have to play a solid basketball game and just compete.”