Los Angeles Times

Fingers crossed after bad loss

Trojans still hopeful for NCAA bid despite showing little urgency against Sun Devils.

- By Ryan Kartje

LAS VEGAS — After a season spent clawing its way back from the wrong side of the bubble, just one more win seemed as if it would be proof enough to assure any lingering doubters of USC’s rightful place in the NCAA tournament field. One measly victory in the conference quarterfin­als, and USC could rest easy on Selection Sunday.

But there was no reassuranc­e to be found for USC in Las Vegas, nor will there be restful nights ahead. If the committee still needed any convincing, USC didn’t make much of a case in a 7772 loss to Arizona State.

Now the Trojans will have to sit and wait, crossing their fingers that enough bubbles burst between now and Sunday. Ironically enough, while the loss might’ve put USC in some degree of danger, it likely earned Arizona State a place in the field.

“They just wanted it more than us tonight,” USC point guard Boogie Ellis said.

Whether USC earned its place in the NCAA tournament field before Thursday’s night’s debacle will no doubt be debated. Most prognostic­ators seemed to suggest USC had already played its way in after finishing 22-9 in the regular season. Coach Andy Enfield spent several minutes offering his own explanatio­n, while players seemed largely unbothered by their place on the bubble.

“I still feel confident,” Kobe Johnson said. “I know we should be in it. I don’t know how the NCAA is going to put us, but if we’re fortunate to get in, we’re going to have a huge chip on our shoulder.”

Nothing about the night’s performanc­e, however, suggested a team intending to make a statement about its postseason status, as the Trojans were outplayed and outhustled from start to finish on Thursday.

There was no such desperatio­n from USC, at least until the final few minutes, when the Trojans started firing at will from deep. They sank three-pointers on three straight possession­s, cutting Arizona State’s lead to four points, offering a glint of hope during an otherwise disappoint­ing evening.

USC’s most recent loss in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament ended an 11-21 season, Enfield’s first leading the Trojans. This time around, his team had the chops to make a much deeper run, but none of that played out as planned.

USC came unraveled early and never quite recovered. It opened stagnant from the field. It was outmuscled on the offensive boards, allowing Arizona State to score 21 secondchan­ce points.

It was a wonder USC was able to hang around as long as it did. It had Tre White and Johnson to thank for that, as the two young Trojans wings combined for 31 points on 11-for-18 shooting. The rest of the team shot 12 for 37 from the field.

Enfield pointed to the toll a season’s worth of adversity took on the team. Nagging aches and pains were piling up. A cold spread through the locker room this week, leaving several players unable to practice. Drew Peterson spent the week tending to a stiff back, while freshman Vince Iwuchukwu dealt with a back injury that forced him to miss Thursday’s game.

Peterson said he felt only “a little bit better” than he did last Saturday, when the two teams last met. He shot just two for 12 from the field, leaving USC with a gaping hole in its offense.

“We came out soft,” Johnson said, “and this time of year, you can’t come out soft.”

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