No. 19 USC loses grip on Pac-12 title with loss to Colorado

USC knew it would need to hold on for dear life if it hoped to cling to its claim atop the Pac-12, and for weeks, that tenuous grip held through injuries and off nights and circumstances outside of its control, leaving the Trojans within reach of their first regular season title in 36 years.

But all it would take was one slip-up, and on Thursday night, before they could even catch their breath in Boulder, their conference title fate had already fallen out of their hands in an 80-62 defeat to Colorado. Now, with three games left in the regular season, USC sits a half-game behind its crosstown rival UCLA, which it will meet in just over a week’s time.

“We deserve what we got tonight,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “They played better than us, and we have to figure out by Saturday something different.”

The script actually felt frustratingly familiar. The lagging defense. The torrent of threes. The lost battles on the boards. It was the same way USC lost to Colorado in December, when its charmed season seemed far less certain than it does today.

But the approach for upending the Trojans remains the same as it has been all season, the same as Colorado followed on Thursday night. It starts with outworking USC on the glass, where for the fourth time this season — all of which were losses — the Trojans were outrebounded, 35-34.

The hustle that defined USC’s resounding victory earlier in the week had apparently dissipated in the Rocky Mountain air. Ethan Anderson and Drew Peterson, who provided much of that spark on Monday against Oregon, were largely lifeless on Thursday.

Trojan defenders in general struggled to stay with their men on the perimeter, as Colorado found opportunities inside and out, forcing Enfield to switch to a zone.

“We could’ve played zone for 40 minutes which we’ll probably do next time,” Enfield said. “Our man to man struggled a little bit.”

USC’s defense improved in the second half, but not enough to make a difference, as Colorado point guard McKinley Wright IV dictated the game with ease, dealing out a career high 14 assists — double the amount USC had as a team.

Unlike Monday, when it came out scorching hot with 15 unanswered points against Oregon, USC (19-5, 13-4 Pac-12) struggled just to find its footing early against Colorado (18-7, 12-6 Pac-12). Isaiah White, who averages just seven points, scored the Trojans’ first six points, and through eight minutes, he was all alone.

Tahj Eaddy, who carried the Trojans offensively over their last four games, averaging 22, came crashing back to Earth as Colorado shadowed him closely on the wings. He finished with 13 points on three-of-nine shooting.

Evan Mobley, the star 7-footer, turned the ball over four times and was largely held in check too, with 13 points and five rebounds.

“When those guys don’t have great games offensively and no one else really steps up and scores for us, it’s hard,” Enfield said.

It’s harder still when your opponent proceeds to hit 55% from three-point range, dooming any hope of USC mounting a comeback. Any time the Trojans closed the gap, the Buffaloes provided a timely, resounding answer. More often than not it was Colorado’s Jeriah Horne who delivered the crushing missive, drilling six of nine from three-point range.

Horne led the way for a Colorado bench that scored 37 points, more than double the output of USC’s reserves.

When USC cut the Colorado lead to just three in the first half, a 10-0 Buffaloes run followed. When it showed a last bit of life late, cutting the Colorado lead to 10 with four minutes remaining, the Buffaloes finished the game on an 11-3 run.

“We just didn’t make enough shots tonight,” Enfield said. “We didn’t make them.”

And now, with just three games left, there aren’t many chances left for USC to regain its grip.

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