In one Saturday, all of USC’s room for error disappeared.
With the 17th-ranked Trojans’ 81-72 loss to Arizona and UCLA’s 80-79 win over Arizona State, USC lost its solo grip on first place in the Pac-12. Instead, the Trojans and Bruins are tied at 12-3.
So USC has five games left to play, including a finale against UCLA, with no margin left for missteps if the Trojans (18-4 overall) are going to win their first regular-season conference title since 1985.
The tightrope walk begins with this three-game week coming up, starting Monday against Oregon (14-4, 9-3).
“That’s where mental toughness comes in,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “We didn’t talk to our team for very long after the [Arizona] game. They don’t need to hear coaches go over a loss right now.”
It was the Trojans’ first defeat in eight games, so there is no need to pull any alarms. It’s the type of loss that can happen to any team, where a road team comes to play a ranked opponent and arrives with more energy and physicality than the home team anticipated.
What USC can’t afford, though, is to let this happen again. And the key to that is making sure that the Trojans don’t come out sluggish like they did against the Wildcats.
It’s been a recurring theme for USC this year, but for the most part the Trojans have been good enough in second halves to erase slow starts. So the Arizona loss should serve as a reminder for USC before future opening tips.
“Every game is going to be a tough game no matter who you’re playing and we just got to bring it from the start every single game,” leading scorer Evan Mobley said. “And the next few games we really got to lock in and hopefully secure the championship.”
The Ducks are coming to the Galen Center on short notice, taking a date previously held by Stanford. Enfield said USC already had an advance scout done for the Cardinal before the Pac-12 switched the dates so Oregon came to Los Angeles on Monday and Stanford in the first week of March.
“I’m not sure what the grand plan is and I haven’t asked,” Enfield said. “It’s difficult to have a game taken off your schedule four days before but we’re going to make the most of it.”
Oregon enters the game on a five-game winning streak. The Ducks are a balanced offense with five players averaging over 10 points per game, and a guard in Chris Duarte who is clever with the ball in his hands. He’s the type of player that has given the Trojans fits this year, like UConn’s James Bouknight in December or Arizona’s James Akinjo on Saturday.
But at least now, USC knows it has no room for error on Monday.
Oregon at USC
When: 6 p.m., Monday, Feb. 22
Where: Galen Center
TV/Radio: Fox Sports One/AM 790