USC men’s basketball eliminated from NCAA tournament in a 10-point loss to Michigan State

The Trojans struggled mightily on offense in the final 20 minutes, as two key scoring runs led the Spartans to victory.

Boogie Ellis is standing next to the bench. He is wearing a cardinal uniform.

Facing a win-or-go-home situation on Friday afternoon, No. 10 seed USC men’s basketball did not have the offensive performance it needed to keep its season alive. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Trojans scored just 28 points in the second half, as the No. 7 seed Michigan State Spartans pulled away for a 72-62 win in Columbus.

USC looked outstanding at the end of the first half, battling back from an early 11-point deficit to enter halftime tied at 34. The Trojans made 10 of their final 14 field goals before the break after starting 3-of-12. Despite their slow start, the team was shooting 50% from the floor, and outscored Michigan State 21-10 in the final nine minutes.

However, whatever positive momentum USC had built up quickly evaporated once the second half began. The Trojans had two extended scoring droughts in the second half, one keeping them off the scoreboard for three and a half minutes, while the other saw USC score just two points in over seven minutes.

“I thought in the second half there were a couple of possessions where we went one-on-one too much instead of playing basketball the way we’re capable of,” head coach Andy Enfield said after the game. “And then we missed some wide-open, timely shots. It’s hard to not make timely shots and turn the ball over, and some of those turnovers were just self-inflicted with our guys losing the ball.”

The Spartans made life very difficult for the Trojan guards, playing very physically and forcing them into contested jump shots. In the rare instances that they did get a good offensive look, they could not make Michigan State pay nearly often enough. In the second half, USC shot 34% from the floor, and missed six of its first seven 3-point attempts.

Self-inflicted wounds also plagued the Trojans late. While USC only turned the ball over three times in the first half, it had eight giveaways in the second, leading to 14 points for its opponent.

“I know that there was a lot of pressure on these guys in the second half when we got down,” Enfield said. “It is frustrating at times throughout the season, but for the most part our guys played the right way. [Senior guard Boogie Ellis’] assist to turnover ratio was two and a half or three to one in the last 10 or 12 games. Unfortunately today, it caught up to us in the first half and just wasn’t the case.”

While the Trojans were failing to score, the Spartans ripped off 11-2 and 13-2 runs. The latter run, coming in the final 10 minutes of the game, turned a four-point contest into one that was completely out of hand. The run culminated with back-to-back 3-pointers by graduate forward Joey Hauser and sophomore guard Jaden Akins, ballooning the Michigan State lead to 15 points and sending the heavily pro-Spartan crowd into an absolute frenzy.

Hauser was particularly deadly for Michigan State, finishing with a game-high 17 points and shooting 4-for-6 from beyond the arc. Akins, senior guard Tyson Walker and junior guard A.J. Hoggard also finished in double-figures for the Spartans.

Ellis had his worst game in months. He had the highest scoring average of either team, averaging over 18 points per contest, but only scored six on Friday afternoon — his lowest point total since December 7. Ellis shot 3-for-12 from the field, and missed all three of his 3-point attempts.

“[The Spartans] did a great job,” Ellis said. “I let my team down today. I didn’t change my pace all year. All year I felt like I played with a great pace, but today I played too fast, so that’s on me.”

Ellis’ first basket of the game came with 3:12 remaining in the first half, as he seemed hesitant to shoot the basketball after a few early misses. He came out of the locker room much more aggressive to start the second, making the first two field goals for USC by driving to the rim for tough layups, with a potential third make being called back for an offensive foul. However, Ellis had a much tougher time penetrating the paint after those two shots, as the Spartans held him off the scoreboard for the final 16:52.

Fifth-year guard Drew Peterson and sophomore guard Reese Dixon-Waters both struggled as well in the last 20 minutes. The two shot a combined 3-for-12 from the field and 1-for-4 from three, after shooting 5-for-9 in the first half and accounting for two of USC’s three 3-point makes.

Not ready to pack it in just yet, sophomore guard Kobe Johnson, who finished with 13 points, hit two triples of his own after the four-minute mark, bringing the Trojan deficit back down to single-digits. Seeing that Michigan State was going to run out the clock as much as possible, USC began fouling intentionally. In the next two minutes, the Spartans missed four of their next five attempts at the line, including the front ends of three one-and-ones, giving the Trojans a golden opportunity to continue to eat into the MSU lead.

With the chance to pull off a miracle, the USC offense went ice cold one final time. On the five possessions following Johnson’s second three, the team shot 0-for-3 from the floor and turned the ball over twice, all while Michigan State could not knock down a free throw. USC did not score again until 47 seconds were left in the game, and by that time, it was already too late.

“We tried to find the best shot possible,” Peterson said about that final sequence. “We missed some timely shots, they hit their timely shots … I trust Boogie to take all those shots. Sometimes that’s the way the ball rolls, there’s no blame to go around.”

The unlikely offensive leader for the Trojans was redshirt junior forward Joshua Morgan. Morgan, who had scored eight points in his last four games combined, finished with a game-high 14 for USC. He was the beneficiary of some great ball movement in the first half, where he scored 10 of his points and shot a perfect 5-for-5 from the field.

This loss marks USC’s second consecutive first round exit from the NCAA tournament after falling to the Miami Hurricanes a year ago. The Trojans finish 2022-23 with a 22-11 record but will see a very resilient season come to an unsatisfying conclusion.