COLUMBUS — Perhaps this was the way it was always meant to end. A USC men’s basketball team whose offense had a penchant for disappearing for vast stretches of games, vanishing at the worst possible moment.
It’s something USC could get away with at times over the course of the season, but not Friday, as the 10th-seeded Trojans fell to seventh-seeded Michigan State 72-62 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
USC shot 11 for 32 from the floor in the second half. Eleven turnovers – eight in the second half – generated 16 Michigan State points. Leading scorers Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson combined to shoot 7 for 22 from the floor.
“This game did not go as planned in the second half,” Trojans head coach Andy Enfield said. “A lot of timely shot-making by Michigan State and some timely misses on our part.”
And somehow worse, with USC down nine with two minutes left, after Michigan State missed three consecutive front ends of one-and-one free throws, the Trojans (22-11) missed two jumpers and turned the ball over, netting zero points, as the opportunity for a comeback slipped away.
“When you’re trailing and you’re trying to figure it out and gauge trying to get 3s versus easier twos, it’s just something that’s part of the game,” Peterson said. “We tried to find the best shot possible.”
Not to say USC’s offensive woes began in the second half.
The Trojans quickly fell behind by 11, in part due to allowing Michigan State (20-12) to make 10 of 18 attempts with open looks. But the bigger problem for USC was its own shot selection.
USC missed nine of its first 12 attempts and 12 of its first 15 shots were jumpers. The Trojans were settling for long looks, including one 30-foot Ellis 3-pointer that left Enfield flabbergasted.
After averaging 25.8 points across the last six games of the regular season, Ellis never got comfortable against Michigan State. He was held to six points, his lowest point total since Dec. 7. And his five assists were offset by three turnovers.
“I let my teammates down today,” Ellis said. “I didn’t change my pace all year. I play with a great pace. But today I played a little bit too fast. So that’s on me.”
But USC found an unlikely first-half hero, as is so often the case in March.
Michigan State opted not to defend center Joshua Morgan when USC drove to the rim, instead deploying his man to double-team the ball handler. So USC started feeding Morgan. The center made a jumper and three layups, and USC was within three.
When Morgan returned to the bench during the ensuing MSU timeout, he could hardly stand up straight he was so out of breath. But that didn’t stop assistant coach Eric Mobley and freshman Vincent Iwuchukwu from mobbing him.
After the break, Ellis hit a floater – his first basket of the game, 17 minutes in – and Kijani Wright sank a free throw to tie it, and that’s how the Trojans and Spartans would enter halftime.
But USC again could not find enough energy to start the second half. The Trojans opened 2 for 8 from the field, while Michigan State made 7 of 11. USC went scoreless for three minutes while Tyson Walker, moments after injuring his elbow on an Ellis charge, found Joey Hauser for a 3, then drove in for a second-chance layup.
When Carson Cooper put back a miss for a two-handed dunk, Enfield called timeout with USC trailing 49-40.
A driving, one-handed dunk from Johnson stopped the bleeding, then a dump down from Dixon-Waters to an open Morgan for a dunk got USC within five again.
But USC suffered another scoring drought, this one four minutes long. USC missed five consecutive shots and turned the ball over three times, including a pass from Morgan out to the perimeter that A.J. Hoggard intercepted and took the distance for a layup.
So when USC fell behind by 15 as Michigan State hit back-to-back corner 3s, Jaden Akins bouncing up the court in celebration after the second. The large Spartan contingent at Nationwide Arena jumped about, too, sensing the win in hand.
Even when Johnson hit back-to-back 3-pointers to get within nine, Michigan State was able to survive not by hitting free throws but by grabbing the rebounds of USC’s repeated misses.
Unfortunately for USC, cold spells on offense were not an uncommon occurrence in losses this year. Asked if he needed to do a philosophical reevaluation of the USC offense this offseason, Enfield put the onus on his players.
“The scoring droughts are usually either you miss open shots or guys try to do too much on their own, one-on-one, instead of just moving the ball and spacing and cutting,” he said. “It is frustrating at times throughout the season. But for the most part our guys played the right way.”
But not enough to move on this March.