LAS VEGAS–It is often said that basketball is a game of runs. Teams find grooves, they get hot or in some other cases, lock down on defense. It's a game that allows for competitiveness to rise out of a ashes of a seeming blowout. It allows for eight-seeds to beat one-seeds, for underdogs to compete with favorites and for upsets to occur when there is nothing but a wisp of a chance. It's what makes the sport great.
It's also what makes it, in some cases, cruel.
Quiet and dejected following a 76-74 loss to rival UCLA in the second round of the Pac-12 Tournament, USC players in the locker room knew that the very same runs that placed them at the foot of an upset, were also the same that had left them disappointed they couldn't finish the job.
"We made shots, they made shots and it just didn't come out in our favor today," whispered freshman Jonah Matthews.
UCLA wasn't extremely exceptional on Thursday night. Given that their offense is ranked third in the nation, per Ken Pomeroy, they merely scored 76 points on 74 possessions. About a point per possession lower than their 1.23 point per possession season average.
"We've come more of a defensive staple," Elijah Stewart said. "Trying to just hold people down."
But UCLA was at least efficient where USC was streaky. Or just downright unable to make shots.
In the first seven minutes of the game, USC shot 16% from the field, 28% from beyond the arc and 20% from the free-throw line. They fell 14-3 and at one point were down 14 with five minutes left in the half.
A defensive spark was all but essential to ensure USC would avoid being blown out again. In the last five minutes of the half, USC allowed zero second-chance points to a UCLA team that was out-rebounding them. They shored up the boards and forced three steals to cut the deficit to three points at the half.
When USC couldn't hit a shot it did what it knows how to do best: Force turnovers and get easy buckets.
"We picked up our defense, started playing with more intensity," Matthews said. "That's what brought us back in the game."
Last night against Washington, the message to a winning team in the locker room had been a challenge to want it more. Thursday's circumstances forced USC coaches to be positive despite the fact that they were trailing and struggling to score.
"Keep playing the way you're playing," they said. "Just turn it up about ten notches."
In the second half, their efforts resembled that of a sputtering car trying hard to get up a steep road. They got halfway through it, nearly all the way to the top at some points, but just couldn't get over the hump in the end.
They cut the Bruin lead to one early in the first before letting it burst back up to 10. They proceeded to cut it to seven, then to five and finally to three with a minute left. With the ball in their possession all they needed to do was make one or two shots. Instead, they missed two on one possession and that was all she wrote.
"Honestly, if one of those [shots] goes in and we get a few calls, maybe we have a chance to win there in the last 30 seconds," a suit-less and tie-less Enfield said postgame.
The last minute or 30 seconds were surely a missed opportunity, but USC did themselves no favors by missing eight free throws in the game, and not capitalizing on other spots where a tie or a lead was well within their grasp. Late-game execution continued to be a problem, but it wasn't helped by what they did early.
Saving grace can be found for the Trojans in that they competed well against one of the top teams in the country. As they stand in the midst of some uncertainty regarding their future in March, they know they have placed themselves in a comfortable spot going into selection Sunday.
"You saw how we played tonight," Enfield argued. "You don't get 24 wins if you're not a good team. We could easily win some games in the tournament."
In a literal sense, Enfield has no control over USC's selection, but hearing him talk this week and use this tournament as a platform for championing his squad, you would think he was on the committee.
Enfield, and his players like Stewart who can't see a way USC misses out, aren't wrong. This is a team that has a good non-conference win in SMU, while also boasting a win against this UCLA squad and a very tough stretch of games that pitted them against the Bruins, Oregon Ducks and Arizona Wildcats to finish the season. Their case is stronger than most, if not all, mid-majors. Regardless of their status, there is an awareness that this recent play won't cut it. USC knows March demands a whole other level of play.
"We gotta come out strong, can't come out flat," Matthews said. "We gotta come knowing that it could be our last game."
Come Sunday, USC will finally know its fate and move forward, but for the better part of Thursday night and into the wee hours of Friday morning, all it could seem to think about was getting back in that car on that uphill road and trying to make another run at a chance that had slipped away.
Yes, basketball is a game of runs. But afterwards, it's nothing but helpless what if's.