No. 5 USC men’s basketball finished the 2021 calendar year tied for second in the nation with 32 wins, trailing only Gonzaga and tied with Houston and defending champion Baylor.
However, the Trojans hit an early speed bump in their second game of 2022, losing 75-69 at Stanford on Tuesday afternoon; this marked the team’s first loss since the Elite Eight last March.
The Cardinal, led by 21 points each from forwards junior Spencer Jones and freshman Harrison Ingram, shot 44% from the field, a season-high for USC opponents.
“We just have to learn urgency, pay attention to the details and I think we’ll be just fine,” said junior forward Isaiah Mobley on what his team can take away from the loss, which was a makeup game originally scheduled for last Saturday.
The Trojans’ offense was inconsistent in the second half against a big, physical Stanford lineup that dictated the game and did not allow a USC player to make more than five field goals.
For the second straight season, USC played in an oddly quiet, nearly empty Maples Pavilion against Stanford. Unlike their Feb. 2, 2021 win in Palo Alto, the Trojans came out rather quickly to take early advantage of the lack of fans in Maples Pavilion, a notoriously tough place to play on the West Coast.
“We’re not used to it, but it’s not unfamiliar because we played without fans last year,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said about the eerie environment.
In the first meeting last season, the Cardinal jumped out to a 24-14 first-half lead; however, USC found its groove more quickly this time around. Riding a hot shooting start from three, where they began the game 4-for-7, the Trojans found themselves up 20-16 halfway through the first period. USC would shoot just 2-for-14 from deep the rest of the game.
USC especially needed some efficient outside scoring Tuesday because it didn’t have the same height — and therefore, rebounding advantage — it typically has over almost every opponent. In fact, Stanford, the fourth-tallest team in the country, held a 14-7 rebounding advantage in the first ten minutes over USC, the nation’s third-tallest team. Ingram had his way on the boards in the first half with seven rebounds on his own.
The Cardinal often utilized an on-court lineup of sophomore point guard Michael O’Connell with four versatile forwards, which matched up well with the Trojans, who typically have four 6-foot-7 or taller players on the court at any given time.
Stanford’s size particularly disrupted the USC frontcourt on offense. Mobley and redshirt senior Chevez Goodwin, the Trojans’ two leading scorers, were limited to just seven combined points in the first half on just six attempted shots. Junior guard Boogie Ellis provided a needed spark instead, with 10 points and a pair of threes before the half.
“I think our game plan was good, but we just had to execute it better than we did,” Goodwin said. “They are a good team, and they were the better team today, but I think we are a better team overall.”
The Cardinal’s leading scorer, senior forward Jaiden Delaire, had a similar slow start against the USC frontcourt and was a non-factor early on. Instead, Stanford almost completely relied on the rest of its talented forwards. Sophomore Brandon Angel had all eight of the Cardinal’s first-half bench points, and his fellow big men, Jones and Ingram, shot 7-for-12 for 21 combined points in the first half.
Stanford ended the first half on a 6-0 run, though it still trailed 33-32.
Mobley wasn’t his usual dominant self in the paint for the Trojans, but he found some rhythm from the outside in the second half with three triples and multiple fouls drawn around the arc. However, turnover issues began to plague USC as the game progressed, as it committed six in a ten-minute stretch to begin the second half.
“Stanford sent a lot of double-teams early, and I knew they weren’t going to let me score from inside,” Mobley said. “So, I knew I would have to get out a little bit more.”
Meanwhile, the Cardinal took advantage of those extra possessions, including sophomore guard Noah Taitz, whose back-to-back threes helped put his team ahead 52-49 at the under-12 media timeout. For the next several minutes, both teams traded baskets, and neither separated itself by more than four points.
Stanford’s 18 second-half fouls showed it wasn’t afraid to send the Trojans to the line, where USC has notably struggled this season. USC shot 21-for-32 on free throws, an uptick from its season average of 60%, but the constant pauses affected the flow of the USC offense.
“We missed a few free throws … we missed a lot of open shots,” Enfield said. “Shooting 6-for-21 from three on the road simply isn’t enough to win on the road.”
At the same time, the Cardinal offense was sustained by a healthy dose of three-pointers, where they went 10-for-24 for the game.
Delaire’s first field goal of the game with two minutes to go put Stanford up four with two minutes left. All of a sudden, USC was in as much danger of suffering its first loss as it had been all season.
Mobley’s first missed three of the game gave the ball back to the Cardinal, who still led by four with just 45 seconds left, as desperation set in for the Trojans and their quest to remain unbeaten. A trio of missed free throws in the final minute by USC practically sealed the deal, as the Trojan defense couldn’t find any answers for the Stanford offense, which shot 48% in the second half.
The Trojans will have to dust themselves off quickly, as they still have two more games to play this week, starting with a home game against a struggling Oregon State team on Thursday at 8 p.m.