USC basketball suffered their second loss to start the month of February as a late comeback fell short against Arizona in Tucson.
With Nick Rakocevic and Jonah Mathews benched to start the game for a violation of team rules, USC went into a tough matchup with an early uphill climb.
Despite the absences and Josh Green’s triple to open the scoring, USC’s work under the basket kept the Trojans in the game in the first five minutes.
The effort on the offensive side of the ball wasn’t matched on the defensive side though. Arizona used a handful of offensive rebounds to pounce. They pulled away by 11 points with just over six minutes remaining in the first half.
An 8-0 run from USC trimmed the deficit for a minute, but it didn’t last. The Wildcats generated turnovers and made shots from the free-throw line to restore a 12-point lead in the final minute.
An Onyeka Okongwu jumper from the baseline, his 13th point of the period, left the score at 43-33 in favor of the Wildcats.
The halftime break did USC no good. They committed turnovers on their first two possessions, propelling Arizona to push their lead. After a 10-0 run, they led by 20 points at 61-41.
It was Rakocevic who sparked USC’s drive back into the game. He was shaken up by a collision under the basket and had to leave the floor, but upon his return, he accounted for the Trojans next five made baskets.
What had been a double-digit deficit shrunk to seven with under five minutes remaining.
Ultimately USC wasn’t able to sustain the comeback. Nico Manion was fouled on a three-point attempt, bringing the gap back to nine as the final two minutes approached.
USC did make it interesting in the end, thanks to a three-pointer from Daniel Utomi. He trimmed Arizona’s lead to four with 30 seconds remaining. Even though the Wildcats missed a couple of free throws in those critical moments, the Trojans came up too little, too late.
Arizona got the win, 85-80.
USC’s rough start to February continued with their second-straight loss and sixth overall. USC is now 14-33 in February in the last six seasons under Andy Enfield.
At the very least it wasn’t the blowout it could have become when Arizona took that 20-point lead. The trouble is, losing is losing.
The Wildcats were favored at home, so it’s not the most egregious loss. Still, USC continues to squander their opportunity to contend for the Pac-12 crown. They certainly haven’t looked like a contender in their most recent games.
Onyeka Okongwu remains the most consistent Trojan. He led all scorers with 23 points, hitting 7-of-11 shots and 9-of-10 free throws. He also had a team-best eight rebounds But he can’t do it alone.
On Thursday, Daniel Utomi was the other big contributor with 22 points, including 4-of-7 three-point shots.
Rakocevic added 18 points and seven rebounds in a performance that highlighted the kind of force he could be but isn’t always. Coming in off the bench, he scored 14 points in the second half alone.
Bill Walton, who provided color analysis for ESPN, can be a tough listen, but he got one thing right: Rakocevic needs to be engaged like he was in the second half all the time.
Player of the game: Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji was a handful to deal with. He had 18 points while snagging 11 rebounds. His efficiency rating on the night was 22. Only Okongwu’s mark of 31 was better
Stat of the game: USC shot 50 percent from the field, but committed 12 turnovers which led to 18 points for Arizona.
Next on tap: The Trojans will stay in the state of Arizona to take on ASU on Saturday at 7:00 p.m. on FS1.