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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 77-72 loss to Arizona State.

Now they’ll 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 prior to 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. 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 by Arizona State.

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 3-pointers on three straight possessions, cutting Arizona State’s lead to just 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, none of that played out as planned on Thursday.

USC forward Kobe Johnson (0) looks to pass the ball as Arizona State forward Jamiya Neal defends during the first half in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament on Thursday in Las Vegas.

(David Becker / Associated Press)

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 second-chance points.

It was a wonder USC was able to hang around as long as it did. It had Tre White and Kobe Johnson to thank for that, as the two young Trojan wings combined for 31 points on 11 of 18 shooting. The rest of the team shot 12 of 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 only felt “a little bit better” than he did last Saturday, when the two teams last met. He shot just 2 for 12 from the field, leaving USC with a gaping hole in its offense.

Five nights earlier, these two teams went down to the wire, despite Arizona State shooting a paltry 29% from the floor, its second-worst shooting performance of the season. USC let them hang around anyway, even giving the Sun Devils a shot to send the game to overtime. They missed, and the Trojans breathed a sigh of relief, knowing their tournament hopes were probably safe.

There was no such relief Thursday. Arizona State flew out to a breathless 8-0 run in the first minute, while USC struggled just to get its first shot down.

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

Nothing came any easier for USC from there, as the Trojans looked like a team that had run out of gas.They shot a miserable 26% in the first half, with multiple scoreless stretches of five minutes or more. At one point, they turned the ball over on four consecutive possessions, prompting Enfield to throw up his hands on the sideline.

USC played much better in the second half. But by then, the damage had already been done, the conclusions already drawn. The comeback would fall short, giving the committee plenty to think over.

“Where that puts us on Sunday, that’s not my decision,” Enfield said.

But as far as the coach was concerned, his Trojans had done quite enough already. Even if they did trip over the finish line.

#USCs #late #rally #Pac12 #tournament #loss #Arizona #State

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