LOS ANGELES—When USC traveled north to Eugene to face Oregon last month, they coughed up the ball 16 times en route to a 23-point loss. The Trojans saving grace against one of the top teams in the country was that they were missing their best player in Bennie Boatwright.
After Saturday's 81-70 loss to No. 5 Oregon at home, a down-trodden Boatwright wore large headphones and held a basketball as he stared at his iPhone outside the USC locker room, his head down in disappointment. In just his fourth game back from a knee injury, the sophomore forward shot 20% from the field and only made one of his nine three-pointers.
"He feels worse than anyone in this arena," head coach Andy Enfield said postgame. "He feels 10 times worse than anyone."
On Saturday night at the Galen Center, Boatwright was back for the second matchup against the top-ranked Ducks. Yet in just his fourth game back from injury, the sophomore who sported cornrows and even changed his shoes at halftime could never get going offensively.
Boatwright's struggles were not singular. His poor shooting performance was emblematic of USC's overall inability to shoot well, which compounded with their 16 turnovers, was enough to stifle any opportunity to upset Oregon.
"You gotta protect the ball," Elijah Stewart said. "Too many turnovers. It helped them pull away toward the end."
From tip-off, USC was already behind. Though theirs and Oregon's record mirrored each other at 21-4, the Trojans entered the game unranked and as underdogs, set to face a team that was just coming off a bitter letdown loss at UCLA.
Minutes into the game, they put themselves in an even worse position. Shot after shot went up and rattled out. USC's offense, which had fueled their five-game winning streak and upset against UCLA, sputtered. The Trojans shot 19% from the field in the first 15 minutes of the game. Their bread and butter—the three-point shot—failed to graze the bottom of the net repeatedly. They shot 10% from behind the arc in that same time frame.
Overall, the Trojans could only muster an 37% clip from the field and a season-low 22% from three-point land.
"It's hard to beat a team like this if you don't play well or shoot well," Enfield said drily. "We missed so many open shots. You're not gonna beat Oregon shooting 22% from three."
Yet despite their lackluster and uncharacteristic shooting, USC found a way to stay in it.
Down 11 points 5 minutes left in the first half, they finished on a 16-7 run and made it a two-point game. Thanks to their all-out, suffocating zone defense, they were able to flummox the Ducks at certain points in the game, allowing for their poor shooting to try and find a rhythm.
With 13 minutes left in the game, USC found their streaky selves again and led by four points—their biggest lead of the game. It would last but a blink of an eye, as Oregon went on a 15-4 run, hitting three threes in three straight possessions and a layup on their fourth after a USC turnover.
It was far from a night to remember for the USC guards. Between Stewart, Jordan McLaughlin and De'Anthony Melton, the trio combined for 13 of the team's 16 turnovers.
"Our guards are not turning the ball over a lot this year, you saw some uncharacteristic passes," Enfield said. "[They] were off a bit tonight with their decision-making."
Turnovers withstanding and helping, Oregon would push their lead back to 10 points with five minutes left, yet once again USC made a run. Boatwright hit his first and only three of the night. He then drove to the basket and drew a foul, the fifth for Oregon's Dillon Brooks who killed the Trojans scoring a game-high 21 points in 26 minutes.
"He's really physical," Stewart said of Brooks. "You gotta match his energy every play. He's their leader and they feed off him."
But as Brooks fouled out, Tyler Dorsey got hot, hitting two threes—the latter of an out-of-bounds play with only three seconds on the shot clock—that would become the daggers in any hope USC had of coming back to win.
As despondent as Boatwright and Co. felt postgame, there was a slight silver lining to the result.
"To know that they're a top 5 team in the nation, and we can beat them it really shows our growth," Melton said.
It wasn't enough to please neither team nor their coach, but the fact that they played an average game wherein they struggled uncharacteristically and still had a chance to win, was something they could hang their hat on.
At least until they watch the film, that is.
"They'll see the little things make a difference," Enfield said of the upcoming session. "When you miss shots, you have to try and steal possessions. They'll see a few things they need to work on, especially in the crucial moments of the game."