A season spent climbing from the edge, clawing and clawing his way from one week to the next, had given USC every reason to believe that he could weather any setbacks that might still stand in his way. So often he had survived slow starts or lengthy slumps that comebacks had come to seem like second nature to the Trojans, whose coach had recently called them his biggest improvement in a decade.
But no footholds were found on Friday and no emergency plan was put in place. Months spent tempting fate finally frustrated USC, which lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Michigan State. 72-62.
For the second straight season, the answers to what ailed the Trojans slipped away at the worst possible time, with their NCAA tournaments on the line.
“That’s how the ball rolls sometimes in March,” said senior guard Drew Peterson.
However, this loss was not a matter of some bad rebounding. It was a summation of all of USC’s worst tendencies this season, neatly packaged into one devastating loss.
The Trojans once again started slow, digging an 11-point hole early. Then, after ending the first half on a tear, they settled for too many bad shots and sloppy possessions in the second, shooting 11-for-32 after the half. They also gave away the ball 11 times, giving Michigan State 16 extra turnover points.
It was a stretch all too familiar for USC. However, coach Andy Enfield didn’t seem to think he warranted any soul-searching this offseason about his offensive philosophy.
“It’s hard not to take well-timed shots and lose the ball,” Enfield said. “It was our guys that fumbled. Scoring droughts are usually when you miss open shots or guys try to do too much on their own, one on one, instead of just moving the ball, spacing, and cutting. I know there’s a lot of pressure on these guys. The second half we lowered it. It’s frustrating at times throughout the season. But for the most part, our guys played the right way.”
It didn’t help that their top scorer ran into a wall when they needed him most. Boogie Ellis had been the powerhouse of the Trojans’ offense for the past two months, averaging more than 22 points in his last dozen games.
Their late-season break offered hope that USC would catch fire down the stretch, but it would be 17 minutes before USC’s senior point guard scored Friday.
With Michigan State focused on shutting down Ellis and clogging up the passing lanes, he never found his footing. Ellis finished with just six points, shooting 3-for-12 from the field, a disappointing performance eerily reminiscent of last March, when he struggled and was benched in USC’s first-round loss to Miami.
It was hardly the way Ellis or Peterson, who scored 11, expected to close out their tenures as Trojans.
“I let my teammates down today,” Ellis said. “I played too fast today. I didn’t change my pace all year. I play with a great rhythm. But today I played a little too fast. So that’s up to me.”
He wasn’t the only one who had trouble adjusting. After a week of preparation for Michigan State to move away from the three-point arc, USC was confused when the Spartans spent most of their time attacking the paint.
Few teams had defended the inside better this season than USC, but while the Trojans focused on protecting the Spartans in the arc, Michigan State had no problem working inside, where it scored 32 points, among the most any team has ever played. achieved against USC this season.
“The spots on the paint were significant,” Enfield said.
USC found its own offense on the inside when Joshua Morgan unexpectedly stepped into a scoring role in the first half. Morgan scored eight straight on four straight possessions, leaving the big man exhausted, barely able to stay on his feet during the ensuing timeout.
Morgan’s outburst kept USC afloat for a while, but the Trojans never found the same energy again. As Michigan State came out of the hot half, going 7-for-11 from the field, USC slipped back into a slump. During a four-minute scoreless stretch later in the half, the Trojans turned the ball over three times in three minutes, the last of which led to an escaped Spartan bucket.
With Michigan State’s 15-point lead intact, the sea of green and white that had taken over Nationwide Arena roared in unison.
Any hope of return was soon swallowed up by the Spartans and their raucous adherents. Still, Kobe Johnson did his best to make one, knocking down back-to-back 3-pointers late to cut the lead to nine. Michigan State responded by missing three straight front one-and-one free throws, giving the Trojans a shred of hope with two minutes remaining.
However, the comebacks that USC had conjured up all season had, by that time, dried up. The Trojans missed their next four shots, finally defeated by the hurdles they had overcome so often this season.