April 24, 2024

Andy Enfield wasn’t greatly moved by a great win. The USC coach shrugged off the Trojans’ first victory over a top-five team since 2008.

“We’ve won a lot of games against good teams over the years,” Enfield told reporters after the Trojans shocked then-No. 5 Arizona at Galen Center on Saturday.

The win ended USC’s six-game losing streak in the series and signaled the start of a bigger mission. Needing a miraculous conference championship run to earn their fourth consecutive NCAA bid, the Trojans hope to carry the momentum into the Pac-12 tournament beginning Wednesday at 12 p.m. against eighth-seeded Washington at T-Mobile Arena.

The No. 9 seed Trojans (14-17, 8-12 Pac-12) are on a season-long three-game winning streak but face a daunting task in Las Vegas. Since the conference expanded in 2012, only two teams — Colorado in 2012 and Oregon in 2019 — have managed to win four games in four days to steal the Pac-12 title.

“I don’t think we can take our foot off the pedal,” junior guard Kobe Johnson told reporters Saturday, “because we still got four more games to win.”

Here are three things to watch for USC in the tournament:

Peaking at the right time

USC guard Isaiah Collier (1) celebrates after scoring on a breakaway dunk against Arizona on Saturday.

USC guard Isaiah Collier (1) celebrates after scoring on a breakaway dunk against Arizona on Saturday.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

With the healthy roster they always imagined, the Trojans are averaging 75.9 points during their last 10 games with a 6-4 record. Three of the losses went to overtime or came down to a single possession.

Freshman guard Isaiah Collier’s return from a broken hand has largely fueled the resurgence. The 19-year-old who was named to the conference’s all-freshman team Tuesday is averaging almost 18 points since returning from a six-game absence. Just as important is his improving assist-to-turnover ratio: 1.8 assists to every turnover in the last six games compared to 1.1 before the injury.

Injuries to Collier and Boogie Ellis (hamstring) helped players such as Johnson and forward DJ Rodman build confidence while filling larger roles, and with the star guards back, “it’s all just putting the pieces together,” Johnson said.

The plan came together perfectly last weekend. Ellis powered the Trojans to a win against the Arizona State by scoring 20 of his 28 points in the second half. Then when the fifth-year guard struggled on offense against the Wildcats, Johnson and Rodman stepped in, scoring 19 points each to show the depth USC needs to make a long run in Las Vegas.

“It shows,” Johnson said, “that we can compete with anybody.”

Rodman quickly jumped in: “We can beat anyone.”

X-factor

USC guard Bronny James and forward Harrison Hornery  celebrate with fans after the team's win over Arizona

USC guard Bronny James (6) and forward Harrison Hornery (30) celebrate with fans after the team’s win over Arizona Saturday at the Galen Center.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Bronny James has made one three-pointer in the last six games, and he made it count. The freshman’s step-back three at the end of the first half against Arizona gave the Trojans an emotional boost and four-point lead over the Wildcats. James has faded in and out on offense while adjusting to the college game and recovering from a sudden cardiac arrest suffered last summer but enters the postseason with momentum from a five-point, six-rebound performance against Arizona.

“This,” Enfield told reporters, “is the best he’s played in a while.”

Enfield praised the off-the-bench play from James, who also had a career-high six rebounds, and sophomore Vincent Iwuchukwu as a reason for USC’s upset win. It’s the type of lift the Trojans have been waiting for on a roster of mostly young players and veterans expected to step into larger roles.

Iwuchukwu, who had four points and two rebounds while battling Arizona center Oumar Ballo, is averaging 5.7 points and 3.9 rebounds. The former five-star prospect’s USC career has been marred by medical scares and injuries from a cardiac arrest two summers ago to offseason back surgery this season. The 7-foot-1 forward has yet to have an offseason dedicated purely to improving his game.

“He’s still a developing big man,” Enfield said last month. “He has a lot of upside in his game still. And we think he’s going to be a terrific player.”

The road ahead

USC guard Boogie Ellis drives to the basket as he is guarded by Arizona's Kylan Boswell

USC guard Boogie Ellis drives to the basket as he is guarded by Arizona’s Kylan Boswell on Saturday at Galen Center. The Trojans won and could face the Wildcats again during the Pac-12 tournament.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

USC’s confidence-boosting win on senior night set up a potential rematch with top-seeded Arizona in the quarterfinals Thursday. The Trojans needed the victory to force a multiteam tiebreaker for ninth place in the conference standings with Arizona State and Stanford. USC’s 3-1 record against California, Utah and Washington — who were all tied for sixth place — boosted the Trojans to the No. 9 seed.

Washington (17-14, 9-11 Pac-12) is coming off its own marquee victory, upsetting rival Washington State in Pullman for its first ranked road win since 2017. Pac-12 sixth man of the year Koren Johnson led the Huskies with 23 points, but it wasn’t enough to save head coach Mike Hopkins’ job. A day after the victory, the school announced it will not retain Hopkins after the end of the season.

If the Trojans knock off Washington for a second time this month — following USC’s 82-75 win in Seattle on March 2 — they’ll have a rematch with Arizona. The regular-season champion Wildcats, who earned a first-round bye, have never lost consecutive games under third-year coach Tommy Lloyd.

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