Los Angeles • Utah took it on the chin against an athletic, versatile team that found its shooting stroke early. That, combined with a stagnant offensive first half, sent the Utes looking for the quickest way out of town after suffering their second straight double-digit loss to one of the Pac-12 Conference’s Los Angeles schools.
A 24-point halftime deficit drained a lot of the juice out of Utah. The Utes made strides, offensively, in the second half but they never rallied in an 84-67 loss to USC in front on announced 4,822 in the Galen Center on Sunday. The loss marked the fourth straight for Utah (10-7, 2-4), and the fourth consecutive game they’d allowed an opponent to score 80 points or more.
“Our mojo is a little damaged right now,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “We could come up with all kinds of excuses. We’re looking for some guys that are ready to battle. I like the way we finished the game. We had some guys that were competing.”
The return of freshman forward Donnie Tillman, who made his first collegiate start, bolstered the Utes’ depth. Tillman had been out with a foot sprain. Sophomore Jayce Johnson matched his career high with 14 points off the bench, and he grabbed a team-high nine rebounds.
Senior guard Justin Bibbins scored all 19 of his points in the second half, including a stretch of 13 consecutive points for the Utes, while David Collette (11 points, six rebounds) and Tillman (10 points) gave the Utes four players in double figures.
The Trojans (13-6, 4-2) had their own quartet of double-digit scorers led by Jonah Mathews with 17 points and three 3-pointers off the bench, while Jordan McLaughlin (14 points, seven assists), Bennie Boatwright (13 points, eight rebounds) and Chimezie Metu (11 points, six assists) produced a balanced attack. The Trojans made a season-high 14 3-pointers, including nine in the first half.
“Coach doesn’t like us to say heart,” Johnson said of the Utes’ defensive problems. “But it’s just our aggressiveness. We have to get out on the shots. We have to put our hands up. When we’re playing D, we have to get out hands up. We can’t leave them down. It’s just a lot of things. They made a lot of threes in the beginning of the game that we shouldn’t have let them make.”
Trojans guards like McLaughlin put so much pressure on the defense to help cut off driving lanes and the Utes were too often scrambling late to get to shooters. The Trojans also put pressure on Utes big men to get out and defend on the perimeter with 6-foot-10 forward Boatwright and 6-foot-11 Metu taking and making open jump shots, including three 3-pointers between the two of them.
The Trojans led by as much as 26 in the first half and went 9 of 15 on 3-pointers. Five Trojans made at least one 3-pointer in the first half.
“McLaughlin was really good in pick-and-roll,” Krystkowiak said. “They hit a number of 3-pointers off of our pick-and-roll coverage. We had breakdowns in that, and he found some people. There’s a reason he leads the conference in assists. He gets some of the credit, and I thought we over-helped at times and got sucked in the lane.”
Meanwhile, the Trojans’ full-court pressure and half-court zone defense forced the Utes into 11 first-half turnovers (17 total) and held them to their lowest-scoring half of the season with just 22 points.
The Utes went 5 of 8 from the field coming out of the locker room. That included a Tillman pump fake and drive between two defenders before he took off for an emphatic one-handed dunk. Collette scored seven of the Utes’ first 10 points to start the half.
“We were playing tentative in the beginning, and a lot of it was my fault,” Bibbins said. “I need to come out stronger. [We had] turnovers and were just playing tentative with the zone. The second half, we attacked it like we normally do and we got good shots.”