USC eliminates Washington in Pac-12 Tourney

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
USC beat Washington, 80-74, in the Pac-12 Tournament as the Trojans continue to play their best basketball of the season now.

LAS VEGAS – This was the team Andy Enfield thought he would have this season when USC entered the season as a preseason Top 25 squad looking to win at least 22 games for a fifth consecutive season, unprecedented in program history.

As Enfield sat down after USC defeated Washington, 80-74, in the first game of the last Pac-12 Tournament, he couldn’t help but think what could have been and what might still be. On one hand, USC has won four straight and five of six, including beating No. 5 Arizona and defeating UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. On the other, they are still 15-17 (8-12 in conference) and are one loss away from the end of what had been a forgettable season until late last month.

USC had one of the most talented teams in recent program history on paper with Isaiah Collier, Boogie Ellis, Kobe Johnson, Bronny James, Joshua Morgan, DJ Rodman and Vincent Iwuchukwu. All of those players were on the floor on Wednesday but that has not always been the case this season.

“We’ve made a lot of improvements this year,” Enfield said. “Our team has improved defensively and offensively. And we felt great early and then in January we had Boogie hurt his hamstring, Isaiah broke his hand and Josh got sick and lost 15 pounds. We lost three guys at the same time. And when you play without your two leading scorers that happen to be your two playmakers, it became very challenging. We didn’t score 70 points for six straight games and lost six in a row.

“When they got back healthy, they’ve been impressive because they’ve improved quickly, and we are playing well. We just thought we’d play a little better in January and early February. But we didn’t anticipate those injuries so now this is a team we thought we’d have. And we’re playing well.”

USC might be playing their best basketball of the season but it might not be enough as the Trojans are slated to play league champion Arizona in the quarterfinals on Thursday. USC, however, comes into the game confident after defeating Arizona, 78-65, just a few days ago, behind 19 points each from Rodman and Johnson.

“I think we came out into that game very physical and we matched their pressure,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve got to come out, just apply the pressure and physicality to them right away because I felt like last game, we did a perfect job shutting down their best players with physicality. As long as we do that, we’ll be in a good spot to do it again.”

USC was led on Wednesday by Ellis, who had 25 points to eclipse 2,000 points for his career, and 14 points by Johnson and 13 points by Collier. James, who was perhaps USC’s best defender, but the game away late with two free throws with 8.9 seconds left.  

“I’m really proud of our guys,” Enfield said. “This is a much better basketball team than we started the season and also throughout the year. And they’ve improved dramatically on both sides of the ball.”