The USC basketball team’s second try at a Pac-12 opener didn’t go much better than the first.
Sure, this time the Trojans were able to play against Colorado without any COVID-19-related postponements. But USC found itself unready to match the Buffaloes’ intensity in a 72-62 loss.
USC (5-2 overall, 0-1 Pac-12) found itself repeatedly gashed by the smallest player on the court.
Colorado’s 6-foot guard McKinley Wright IV drove into the paint at will, undermining USC’s primary defensive advantage – its length – with floaters and creative finishes at the rim. He led all scorers with 17 points on 7-for-13 shooting, adding four assists and four rebounds.
Whereas USC has found itself missing point guard Ethan Anderson (back) mostly on the offensive end for the last month, on New Year’s Eve it was on the defensive end where Anderson’s absence was most notable on defense as Tahj Eaddy and Drew Peterson struggled to stay in front of Wright.
“We really missed Ethan in a game like this with his ball-handling and his defensive toughness,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said.
Eaddy made four 3-pointers and led the Trojans with 16 points, while freshman center Evan Mobley added 12 on 5-for-14 shooting and seven rebounds.
Colorado (7-2, 1-1) beat USC to every loose ball early and took full advantage of those opportunities. The Buffaloes jumped to a 16-0 advantage in points off turnovers and second-chance points while building a double-digit advantage.
USC was able to cut into that lead down to one, with a Peterson finger-roll drawing a timeout from Colorado coach Tad Boyle. That break helped the Buffs adjust and close the half on a 12-2 run, with Jeriah Horne’s high-arcing 3-pointer at the buzzer putting USC in an 11-point hole.
The Trojans still looked listless coming out of the locker room, turning the ball over on the first three possessions of the second half as Colorado built the advantage to a game-high 15 points.
All told, USC had 15 turnovers and was out-rebounded 38-35.
But USC got hot from 3-point range and was able to use the shooting to drag itself back into the game.
It started with a Max Agbonkpolo bucket from the corner, the beneficiary of Chevez Goodwin’s hustle to create a second-chance opportunity. That cut the Colorado lead to nine, and soon after Noah Baumann hit a pair of 3-pointers and Eaddy hit one of his four 3s on the night.
Goodwin drew a loose-ball foul during that final Eaddy triple and hit the two following free throws to make it a two-point game.
But that’s when Wright struck back, spinning into the paint for a layup and hitting a floater over helpless USC defense to push the Colorado lead back to seven. USC then got three good looks at the basket in one possession and came up empty, only to see Evan Battey rub salt into the wound with a three-point play off an offensive rebound with 1:38 to play.
“We just gotta be sharper in terms of our details and making sure we know our scouting report,” Eaddy said. “We were able it to three or four, and then we’ll have a lapse defensively, missed assignment, guy get a wide-open three and allow them to get the momentum back.”
In the end, USC’s second-half surge wasn’t enough to overcome the first-half mistakes that allowed Colorado to shoot 53.3% from the floor and 7 for 13 from 3-point range. The Buffs made just 9 of 30 from the field in the second half, but went 9 for 9 from the free-throw line. Colorado, which finished 14 of 16 from the stripe, went into the game leading the nation in free-throw shooting at 85.4%.
USC went into the game having held its opponents to 35.5% shooting this season (sixth-best in the nation) and hadn’t allowed a team to shoot better than 37.7% since Cal Baptist shot 45.1% in the opener.
“They made some tough shots to get their lead and we made a couple defensive mistakes, but I don’t think it had to do with the energy level,” Enfield said. “We just need everybody else to stand up and that was the difference in the game.”