LAS VEGAS — Down by nine with three minutes left, USC guard Reese Dixon-Waters began to cut to the basket, expecting the Trojans to initiate their offense. What he did not expect was for Kobe Johnson to pass the ball to where Dixon-Waters had just been, only for it to bounce untouched out of bounds.
Coach Andy Enfield could only slump back in his seat, a dejected look on his face as the third-seeded Trojans wasted opportunity after opportunity to mount a comeback in Friday night’s Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal against sixth-seeded Arizona State. Instead, USC left T-Mobile Arena with a 77-72 loss in which the Trojans never led.
Arizona State was the desperate team, needing to win the Pac-12 Tournament title to guarantee itself a spot in the NCAA Tournament field, and the Sun Devils played like it. They dove to the floor after every loose ball. They flew across the court to close out on open shooters. After a player on the court drew a foul, the bench rose to its feet in celebration.
The hustle showed up in the first-half box score, between eight offensive rebounds and 12 second-chance points and five steals.
“In the first half, they wanted it more than us,” said Boogie Ellis, who had 15 points before fouling out. “We came out flat. They just wanted it more than us tonight. That’s my job as a leader to get the guys going and I didn’t do a great job of that.”
USC, meanwhile, was rudderless. Five turnovers in 2:36, eight consecutive missed field-goal attempts, and no clear or even hazy secondary scorer behind Ellis, whose teammates shot 4 for 20 from the floor prior to halftime.
After a week in which players like Dixon-Waters and Joshua Morgan were in and out of practice with illness, the Trojans could not overcome their rust.
“We came out soft,” Johnson said. “This time of year, you can’t come out soft.”
USC (22-10) had its chances in the second half. It made five of seven shots during one stretch to cut the deficit to nine. Ellis drew an offensive foul, and USC could have inched closer. But after a Johnson miss, Arizona State (22-11) grabbed a long offensive rebound after a miss at the end of the shot clock. Two passes later, Duke Brennan had an open layup.
There was no better opportunity than when Dixon-Waters completed a vicious tomahawk dunk through a smack to his face. The foul was upgraded to a flagrant, giving Dixon-Waters two free throws and USC the ball back.
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But he split the two shots, then Ellis turned the ball over, leading to an ASU 3-pointer. Instead of a potential six-point play to cut the deficit in half, USC had gained no ground, down 12 all over again.
The Sun Devils’ 3-point shooting kept USC at bay all game. ASU’s 14 3-pointers tied the most allowed by the Trojans all season. By the time USC hit three straight 3-pointers to get within four, there were only 14 seconds left.
USC now will have to wait three nights until Selection Sunday, wondering about its fate. Does the loss send USC to Albany or Greensboro instead of travel-friendly Sacramento or Denver? Or do the Trojans head to the play-in games in Dayton, Ohio?
Their fate is in the Selection Committee’s hands, but Enfield believes his team has done enough to earn its spot in the 68-team field.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity this year with our roster, but this is why I’m so proud,” Enfield said. “To see where they’ve come from the beginning of the year to the end, it’s really impressive. … Where that puts us on Sunday is not my decision, but I’m very, very proud as a head coach.”