USC falls apart at the end and loses to Washington State, can’t build on winning streak

Boogie Ellis walked stiffly into the postgame interview room, dragging his left leg behind him the same way the fifth-year senior is trying to drag an underachieving USC team into the postseason picture.

Ellis fought through a lingering hamstring injury to score 18 points with five rebounds, but lacked his usual explosiveness to make key shots down the stretch in USC’s 72-64 loss to Washington State on Wednesday at Galen Center. After taking a one-point lead off a three-pointer from Harrison Hornery, the Trojans (8-8, 2-3 Pac-12) went scoreless during the final 2 minutes 16 seconds as Washington State (11-5, 2-3 ) finished the game with nine unanswered points.

USC, which started the season ranked 21st in the Associated Press poll, squandered an opportunity for its first three-game winning streak and fell deeper into a muddled Pac-12 Conference. Saddled with home losses to Big West opponents UC Irvine and Long Beach State and a struggling conference that has few opportunities for marquee wins, USC may already have to resort to targeting a Pac-12 tournament championship as its best hope for an NCAA tournament bid.

But Ellis isn’t buying the pressure less than a month into the conference season.

“In my eyes, pressure is always fake,” Ellis said. “At the end of the day, it’s basketball, you gotta go do what you gotta do. You gotta go get wins. Just gotta go win and we’re capable of that. I believe in my teammates, I believe in the guys in the locker room, I know what we’re capable of. I’ve seen us at our best and we have everybody in the locker room. I feel like we have the talent, we just gotta put it together.”

In a normal circumstance, the coaching staff would have tried to get the guard extra rest Wednesday. Ellis is operating at about 60%, coach Andy Enfield said.

But starting point guard Isaiah Collier suffered a right hand contusion with 12:12 remaining after he scored 12 points with three rebounds, one assist and four turnovers. Leading post defender Joshua Morgan already was out because of an upper respiratory infection. So Ellis was forced to gut out the end of the game after practicing minimally all week. He missed the first free throw of a one-and-one with 1:08 left and a three-pointer with 31 seconds remaining as USC was down by four points.

The Trojans had their second-worst shooting night of the season at 37.9%, trailing only the 28.8% stinker against UC Irvine.

Enfield acknowledged the offensive struggles may have seeped over to defense, where the Trojans struggled without Morgan. The redshirt senior’s absence was “the biggest key in my eyes,” Enfield said. The 6-foot-11 forward leads the Pac-12 in blocked shots with 2.33 per game.

Washington State outscored USC 34-28 in the paint, led by 26 points off the bench from Isaac Jones, who was seven for 10 from the field and 12 for 15 from the free-throw line with 11 rebounds.

“To be honest, no one could stop Jones,” said transfer forward DJ Rodman, who scored eight points with eight rebounds and three steals against his former team. “Having rim protection, we take that for granted so much. When Josh is there I’m not worried about if I get blown by, I know he’ll block the shot.”

Enfield did not have a timeline for when Morgan might return and he wasn’t seated on USC’s bench. The Trojans turned to Vincent Iwuchukwu in Morgan’s place, but the sophomore got bullied by Washington State’s post players. Freshman Rueben Chinyelu made consecutive hook shots over Iwuchuwku early in the second half and as he ran back on defense, Washington State‘s 6-11 center signaled the 7-1 Iwuchukwu was too small by holding his hand close to the court.

The Trojans enabled a fourth consecutive team to shoot better than 50% during the second half as Enfield’s once-stout defense has failed to materialize for an inexperienced team. Teams are shooting 43.6% from the field, the highest percentage since 2017-18, when USC settled for the NIT in Enfield’s fifth season.

The coach has lamented USC’s defensive struggles for weeks, and when asked what the team is working on in practice to address the issues, Enfield paused. A lot of the same drills as before, he conceded.

“Some teams grasp the concepts and are able to do it when the game’s going,” Enfield said. “It’s different when you do it in practice. When you get to the game, things are moving fast, different players, it’s not your own team. You have to adjust to other good players and at times we’ve been pretty good, but that is our biggest deficiency this year.”

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