In a tournament like March Madness, there are two sides of the coin — the dreamers and the dream crushers.
In sixth-seeded USC’s first Elite Eight appearance since 2001, its Final Four dreams were crushed by the overwhelming first-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs, who cruised to an 85-66 victory Tuesday night in Indianapolis. The loss marked the first time this season the Trojans have lost after having four players score in double figures.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Mobley led USC with 19 points and seven rebounds. His brother, freshman forward Evan Mobley, in what was presumably his last college game, added 17 points and five rebounds. Both brothers were named to the 2021 March Madness West Regional Team.
In their biggest game of the season, the Trojans struggled to get comfortable. They opened the first quarter looking sloppy and out of place on offense with five turnovers early.
“They got into transition a lot [in the beginning], we didn’t get back enough. We tried to put emphasis on that, but we didn’t get back fast enough,” Evan said in a virtual press conference after the game. “That’s when they got a lot of free buckets, easy layups, and that’s when they went up.”
Before USC fans had a chance to get comfortable on their couch, Gonzaga jumped all over the Trojans by putting together a 17-4 run within the first six minutes of the game.
The Bulldogs were the more comfortable team: skipping and hopping up and down the court for fast-break layups and 3-pointers.
Bringing up the ball and setting up the offense became difficult for USC. It seemed like everything from passing to dribbling up the court was a hassle. Gonzaga simply would not allow the Trojans to get into any rhythm.
“We didn’t do our part offensively. It was a little unusual because we had been playing so well offensively,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “We haven’t been turning the ball over; we’ve been making shots and playing together as a team. I thought we got sped up a little bit at times during the first half because we were trying too hard after our slow start.”
Despite Gonzaga’s dominance, USC showed fight throughout the game. The Trojans briefly cut the lead down to 13 with 4:29 left after an 8-0 run prompted a timeout from the Bulldogs. And in the second half, USC matched Gonzaga’s total points. Nevertheless, the slow start in the first half hurt the Trojans’ chances of pulling off the comeback.
Gonzaga sophomore forward Drew Timme came out with a vengeance, carrying the Bulldogs with 13 points and three steals in the game’s first few minutes. Timme finished with 23 points, shooting just over 52% from the field.
Alongside Timme, Gonzaga’s other All-Americans freshman guard Jalen Suggs and senior forward Corey Kispert showed up in a big way. Suggs had 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. Kispert added 18 points and eight rebounds.
After blisteringly hot shooting from the 3-point line prior to the matchup with Gonzaga, USC noticeably cooled off, shooting only 26% from beyond the arc — 38% from the field overall.
The loss for the Trojans puts the college career of outstanding freshman forward Evan Mobley to a likely end. Evan was named the Pac-12 Player, Defensive and Freshman of the Year earlier this month — the first player since Kentucky’s Anthony Davis in 2012 to win all three of these awards in a major conference.
Enfield emphasized just how special a player Mobley became.
“Evan is the most unselfish superstar we’ve ever coached. He’s a team player, he’s unassuming, he’s humble and he just works every day to get better,” he said. “He’s going to have a bright future in the NBA because one thing about Evan Mobley is he’s a flat out winner, and we’re exceptionally proud of him and happy to coach him. He’s going to be a Trojan forever.”
Even though the Trojans finished the season on a disappointing note, this year’s team will be remembered as one of the best in school history. Hampered by the difficulties imposed by coronavirus protocols, Enfield said most of the coaching staff hadn’t met half of the new squad in person until September 2020, just over two months before the season started in late November.
Enfield had high praise for the squad and their accomplishments.
“In my coaching career, I have never seen a team develop a chemistry and a culture on and off the court like this team has. They improved dramatically from the start of training camp, throughout the season,” he said. “I think you saw it in the NCAA tournament; we became a very good basketball team… This is a very special team in USC basketball history.”