USC can’t keep up with Michigan State in first-round NCAA tournament loss

A season spent climbing back from the brink, scratching and clawing its way from one week to the next, had given USC every reason to believe it could survive whatever setback or obstacle might present itself. But months of perfecting that approach would only carry it so far into March, as USC fell in the first round of the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.

This time, there would be no answer for Michigan State’s balanced attack and no bouncing back for USC’s uneven one. This time, as Kobe Johnson fired off one late three-pointer after another, while Boogie Ellis tried to find his footing and Drew Peterson tried desperately to keep USC together, it was no use. This time, USC never emerged from the hole it dug for itself, falling to the Spartans 72-62.

It was hardly the tournament experience the Trojans had hoped for in their third trip in as many years. USC only advanced past the first game in 2021.

This trip would be done in, rather unexpectedly, by USC’s defense.

USC made no effort this week to hide its game plan. It prepared all week to run Michigan State off the three-point line, where the Spartans ranked among the most prolific offenses in college basketball, capable of burying any offense, let alone one prone to extended lulls.

What USC hadn’t counted on was Michigan State attacking from the inside while the Trojans crowded the arc. The Spartans would make only five of 14 shots from long range, but they added 32 points in the paint, among the most scored against USC inside all season.

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The disappearance of its leading scorer certainly didn’t help USC, either. In an eerily similar performance to last year’s early tournament loss, Ellis was ineffective. After averaging 22 points over his last dozen games, Ellis scored just six points on Friday on three-of-12 shooting.

Joshua Morgan led the way unexpectedly on offense, at one point scoring eight straight points. He finished with 14.

Michigan State guard Tyson Walker flexes in front of USC’s Tre White during an NCAA tournament game March 17 in Columbus, Ohio.

(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Like it has so often this season, USC opened Friday’s first-round matchup by digging a hole it would spend the rest of the half climbing out of. Shots refused to fall early, as the Trojans missed nine of their first 12 attempts from the field.

At the center of that stagnant start was the point guard who’d spent the past two months carrying USC’s offense on his shoulders, pushing the Trojans to the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble in the process.

Ellis struggled Friday to find the bottom of the net. Thirteen minutes passed before Ellis finally made his first shot. By the end of the first half, USC’s leading scorer was a meager one for six from the field.

His early struggles were eerily reminiscent of last season’s first-round tournament loss, when Ellis also opened one-of-six shooting and proceeded to unravel from there, playing a season-low 14 minutes before Enfield benched him.

This time, however, Ellis quickly found his footing. So would USC’s offense. A slow start gave way to a sudden torrent in the final minutes of the first half, as USC finished on a 10-for-14 shooting tear.

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It wouldn’t last. The second half would slip away in a haze of turnovers and missed shots, leaving USC once again to return home wondering how it’d come unraveled so quickly in March.

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