USC struggles early, falls to Arizona

Basketball Head Coach Andy Enfield stands on the sidelines during a USC home game.

Head Coach Andy Enfield and the Trojans haven’t beaten a ranked Pac-12 team on the road since 2008 (19 games). (Brooks Taylor)

The No. 11 Wildcats pounced on the Trojans from the start and never gave up the lead in USC’s 66-81 loss Thursday night. After a pair of victories at Galen Center against Colorado and Utah, the Trojans failed to sustain their momentum in the matchup, the first of a difficult two-game road trip for the Trojans.

In front of a rowdy crowd at the McKale Memorial Center in Tucson, Arizona, USC struggled from the opening tip-off and found itself down 9-2 a little over 3 minutes into the game. Arizona’s experienced forwards Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo proved to be too much for the Trojans to handle. Tubelis and Ballo combined for 27 points and 24 rebounds, and the Wildcats’ similarly consistent outside shooting put the game out of reach early on. While Arizona shot 28-58 (48.3%) from the field and 12-24 (50.0%) from beyond the arc, USC shot a mere 24-65 (36.9%) from the floor and 4-17 (23.5%) from 3-point range. 

USC Head Coach Andy Enfield chose to start the game in a man-to-man defense, but Arizona’s quick start on offense led him to switch to a zone defense, inadvertently creating space for Arizona’s shooters. Guards Courtney Ramey, Cedric Henderson and Pelle Larsson combined for 42 points, 27 of which were from three-pointers. 

USC needed their more experienced players to step up in a big way in Thursday’s match. Senior guard Boogie Ellis, one of USC’s most consistent scorers so far this season, struggled offensively the entire night. Arizona’s high level of defensive pressure on Ellis led him to shoot just 2-11 from the floor and end the game with 11 points, 2 assists and 4 rebounds. Fifth-year guard Drew Peterson was USC’s leading scorer with 15 points, 2 assists and 7 rebounds.

While the Trojans were outscored 41-26 in the first half, USC cut the lead to just 9 after Ballo was charged with a technical foul a little more than a minute into the second half. Following the foul, Ellis proceeded to score both free throws, which were then succeeded by a much needed three-pointer from sophomore guard Kobe Johnson. However, Arizona’s strong shooting continued over from the first half as Henderson quickly hit back-to-back three pointers to grow the lead to 15 points again. The Wildcats never looked back.

After making his debut as a Trojan against Colorado last week, freshman forward Vincent Iwuchukwu came off of the bench and played 15 minutes in Thursday’s game, putting up 4 points and securing a rebound. 

Sophomore guard Reese Dixon-Waters, who typically produces significant stats as the Trojans’ sixth man, also struggled — especially from the 3-point line — and ended the game with 8 points and 4 rebounds. All around the Trojans didn’t have much to show for on offense, and to go along with that the team only shot 67% from the free-throw line on 21 attempts. 

USC also struggled with the amount of mental mistakes that they had, especially through fouls and turnovers. Although USC only had 12 turnovers compared to Arizona’s 18, the Trojans’ turnovers came at times when they were desperate for a basket in to turn the tide of the game. Oftentimes, the Trojans would force unnecessary passes as well as off-ball fouls that gave Arizona even more momentum and opportunities to score.

Though the game highlighted several of USC’s weaknesses, the loss only put the Trojans down one spot in the Pac-12 standings; they now sit in fourth place, only one game away from the top two spots. 

USC will continue Pac-12 play when they face Arizona State in Desert Financial Arena Saturday at 7:00 p.m.