LAS VEGAS– Less than two weeks ago, Andy Enfield stood on the Galen Center court after a USC practice and pondered the possibility of playing Washington twice in a row. Back then, the Trojans needed to win their last two games against Washington State and Washington to keep their bubble state intact. They handled both the Cougars and the Huskies, the latter of which they had to face again in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.
"It's hard to beat a team twice in a row." Enfield had said then.
On Wednesday night at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, USC saw how difficult it could be to do just that, as it took a strong, defensive second-half from the Trojans to thwart an upset-minded Washington team that played without its star in Markelle Fultz.
The final score may have been 78-73 in favor of USC, but as Enfield and Co. stepped up to the postgame podium, they knew they had fought a battle on their way to all but securing their place in the NCAA tournament.
"Washington played so hard and so well. They looked really good tonight," Enfield said.
The Fultz-less Huskies brought the hot hand to Vegas early, hitting half of their threes and 57% of their shots in the first half. The Trojans' perimeter defense was not up to par, but their opposition was simply draining nearly everything in sight.
On offense, USC was not helping themselves, trying to create shots with dribbles rather than by the type of ball movement Enfield has wanted this team to adopt. Bad shots led to long rebounds for Washington. That put USC's transition defense in peril and suddenly, they were down double digits early.
"Defensively, we came out flat," Bennie Boatwright said of the first half. "We didn't come out as animated as we should have."
Trailing by 10 at one point in the half, USC found a surge and went on a 10-2 run to close out the half and keep it level. But in the locker room at halftime, a tied game was not enough to keep coaches from being displeased.
"You gotta play like you're playing for something," assistant coach Tony Bland told the players.
"He got on us," Boatwright said of Bland. "In the second half, we fixed that."
The second half saw a much more defensive USC team on the court. They tightened up their perimeter play and used pressure to rattle the Huskies.
USC forced Washington into a whopping 17 turnovers, 15 by way of steals, nine of those in the second half. The Trojans typically averages six a game and lead the conference in the stat. On Wednesday night, steals weren't a luxury, but rather a necessity in order to give them a 10-point edge in the fastbreak and eventually, the win.
"They're a real long team," Washington's David Crisp said postgame. "They are really good at back tipping the ball. They play the passing lanes really well and active. They give a lot of teams problems."
"Passes that you think are there aren't there," echoed Noah Dickerson.
Scoring picked up as well. Big man Chimezie Metu dominated had his way in the paint on both ends of the floor and finished with a game-high 24 points and nine rebounds. Boatwright added 13 of his own, while freshman De'Anthony Melton scored nine, but stuffed the stat sheet once again with three assists, three steals and four rebounds.
Yet despite the improved second half performance, what has become a bit of a trend this season resurfaced again, as late-game execution was a riddle USC couldn't solve.
After hitting all 19 of their free throws, the Trojans missed three of their final eight, allowing the Huskies to have a shot at the upset late. With 2:18 left, they were up nine, but Washington cut the lead down to three with less than one minute remaining.
"You can't script everything when they're trapping," Enfield said. "Guys have to step up. Bennie can't shoot every free throw for us."
Shaqquan Aaron, who missed two free-throws late, eventually rose for two key rebounds late and drained his last two shots from the stripe to seal the dicey USC win that should secure their place in March Madness, though Enfield was adamant that USC should be a lock.
"With 24 wins and that type of schedule … we're not worried about the NCAA Tournament," Enfield said, as he rattled off USC's resume to a tee. "We feel great."
Lock or not, USC's victory does give them a rubber match against UCLA Thursday night. What can USC do better to save themselves from another blowout?
"Playing hard," said Jordan McLaughlin.
"We have to come out and play hard and try to win the game," Metu quipped.
In other words, insert your favorite cliche here and hope you can contain Lonzo Ball and UCLA's high-powered offense.