After the USC men’s basketball team edged out a win over Utah in January, the Trojans sat at 17-4 and second in the Pac-12 behind Oregon. But following their 79-65 loss to the Utes Sunday evening, the Trojans were left riddled with injuries and an even slimmer chance at postseason contention.
Senior forward Nick Rakocevic made an unlikely start against the Utes after suffering from the stomach flu since Thursday and played just five minutes before departing the game. The same bug affected senior guard Jonah Mathews, who managed to put up nine points in 23 minutes of play despite several runs to the bathroom.
Freshman forward Isaiah Mobley entered the game in place of Rakocevic but battled an ankle sprain that kept him sidelined for most of the contest.
“When you’re down a couple of your key guys, especially your size and length, it hurts defensively,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “So it threw us out of our offensive rhythm a bit.”
An injury-plagued lineup was certainly not ideal for the Trojans given Utah’s impressive 10-2 home record entering the game. The Utes proved they were ready to capitalize on the mistakes of a young USC team, turning in 25 points off turnovers.
Without the Trojans’ size as a threat, Utah sophomore forward Timmy Allen put up 21 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. Had Allen shot better than 7-for-12 from the line, he would have done even more damage to the Trojans.
With two big men out of the game, it was important that freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu put on another solid performance. Okongwu played 38 of 40 minutes and put up a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds. However, Okongwu’s presence alone could not carry the team, and only one other Trojan — sophomore guard Elijah Weaver — scored in the double digits on the night.
Utah began with an early lead and remained on top throughout much of the first half with USC hovering in striking distance. In the second half, the Utes jumped to a 14-point lead within the first five minutes, but USC went on a 15-6 scoring run to narrow the gap to five points.
The Trojans remained close behind the Utes until they faced a three-minute scoring drought near the end of the game, allowing a hot Utah team to finish the match ahead by 14 points.
“You have to take advantage of your opportunities when you have them,” Enfield said of the Trojans’ scoreless minutes. “We also missed some free throws. The bottom line is our leading scorers were on the bench with sickness.”
With the loss, the Trojans fall to sixth in the conference. They will end the season at home against three teams with better conference records — No. 24 Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA — and each game will be crucial for USC to get a tournament bid come Selection Sunday. The Trojans narrowly lost to both Arizona and Arizona State on the road earlier this season.
Arizona recently proved its ability to challenge tough competition, narrowly losing 73-72 in overtime to No. 14 Oregon Saturday. Enfield said the Trojans must recuperate in order to contend with their three tough remaining opponents.
“Right now, our main goal is to get home safely tonight, get healthy and prepare for Thursday against Arizona,” Enfield said. “Obviously it’s a huge game for us at home … We know what’s at stake, we have to win at home.”
The Trojans will host Arizona Thursday at 7 p.m. before welcoming Arizona State Saturday at 5 p.m.