It was a disaster for the USC Trojans at the start. They went down 8-0 in three and a half minutes and were down 32-20 with just under five minutes to go in the first half.
The Trojans fought back for the majority of the second half, but never seemed to be able to make enough plays to cut the lead. Until six and a half minutes to go. Elijah Stewart, whose 17 points were his most since January, went on a personal 7-0 run to not only cut the UCLA lead but give USC some much-needed energy.
USC got a few defensive stops in crunch time, allowing them to get to the free throw line on the other end and cut the lead, but Elijah Stewart missed a put-back that would've cut the lead to one with 15 seconds remaining. But despite a tough loss, there's a lot of positives to takeaway from this game.
Another Slow Start
USC started the game 0/7 from the field, and probably six of those were bad shot attempts. For whatever reason, the Trojans can't help but start halves slowly and it cost them tonight. They were down 8-0 after just a few minutes and UCLA's biggest lead was 13, so the Trojans were right with the Bruins after the atrocious start.
Once would be a coincidence, twice would be an interesting observation, but now this has become a consistent trend for USC that needs to be addressed. The Trojans started the second half slowly as well, taking bad shots and not giving the proper effort on defense. They righted the ship after only a couple minutes, but if they want to win an NCAA Tournament game, USC needs to fix this problem.
USC's dynamic guard had his best scoring game since January, with 17. He went three of five from beyond the arc, and was as aggressive as he's been all season. While this team has a bevy of scorers and doesn't necessarily need Stewart to be this aggressive every night, when he's on it completely changes the dynamic.
Stewart shot over 41% on threes last season and that was down to 37.5% coming into this game, but it's not just the numbers. He's lacked aggression and at times that has seeped into his defensive effort as well. But tonight he was back to being the Elijah Stewart that this team needs if they want to play at an elite level.
This Is Jordan McLaughlin's Team
Whether it was something said to him by the coaches or just a personal decision, Jordan McLaughlin has been much more aggressive as a scorer over the past couple weeks. He averaged almost 20 per game against the Washington schools in the final home stand of the year, and went for 18 tonight against UCLA. Wanting a player to take more shot attempts is rarely an issue, but Jordan is such a mindful player that he often lets the game come to him instead of forcing the issue.
Tonight confirmed suspicions of the last two weeks that USC's offense is at its best when it's run through Jordan McLaughlin. Not Bennie Boatwright, not Chimezie Metu. This isn't to say McLaughlin isn't being the distributor he normally is, he had six assists to only one turnover tonight, but when he's hunting his shot as he did late in the game, things tend to go better for USC.
The Ceiling Is The Roof
While Michael Jordan might not have intended to say that the ceiling is the roof, the same principle applies in this case. USC has proven through wins over UCLA and SMU, and close losses to UCLA, Oregon and Arizona, that they can compete with the best team's in the country. If they can put together a complete game, which is much easier said than done, this team absolutely has the potential for a Sweet 16 run or farther.