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The foundation built over the last three months suddenly was crumbling, their once-towering Pac-12 title hopes abruptly imploding in Salt Lake City, and all Ethan Anderson could do was throw up his hands. Another Utah jumper had gone uncontested. Another possession had fallen flat.
A season that once seemed destined for a magical ending in March is now suddenly falling apart over the final days of February. After winning 13 of 14 games, the Trojans have lost three of their last four, apparently unable to bear the target trained on their backs. After maintaining control of their Pac-12 fate, the Trojans lost control altogether against Utah, leaving them half a game behind conference-leading UCLA with just two games remaining.
If Saturday was any indication how those final two games will play out, the white flag might already be waving in the Trojans’ fight for their first Pac-12 title since the 1984-85 season.
“It was really our worst performance, probably of the entire season,” USC coach Andy Enfield said.
It was the kind of ugly setback USC (19-6, 13-5 Pac-12) has been known for this time of year under Enfield, whose eighth campaign has by far been his best to this point.
Until this season, Enfield never had won more than four games in February.
But even as those familiar concerns were raised in the wake of the last week’s slide, Enfield brushed them off. A dismal stretch that also included a nine-point loss to Arizona and an 18-point shellacking by Colorado wouldn’t change that USC still was on track for its best season in years, the coach assured.
“We have to play better; it’s pretty simple,” Enfield said. “They have to play at the level they played all season, and if we do that, we’ll be fine.”
They certainly didn’t look fine Saturday, even as the stakes at hand were abundantly clear. In what should’ve been an easy bounce-back opportunity, following a tough loss to Colorado two nights earlier, USC looked completely lost on both ends against Utah. The Trojans shot a miserable 37% from the floor, including just 15% from three-point range. Their two top scorers, Evan Mobley and Tahj Eaddy, combined for 15 points on four-for-17 shooting.
For the Trojans’ star 7-footer, it marked a second no-show against Utah, who held Mobley without a single field-goal attempt back in January. He couldn’t do much better seven weeks later, making just two field goals and scoring 11 points.
But USC’s performance on defense was somehow worse, as shots went uncontested, drives went unchallenged, and one of the best defenses in the nation all season looked unhinged in a disastrous second half. Over the first 17 minutes, Utah shot an unthinkable 75%, while USC’s defense appeared unable to stop the bleeding.
Drew Peterson did his best to keep USC alive as long as he could. The transfer guard had been struggling in recent weeks but found his stroke late Saturday, scoring 13 points in the second half to lead the Trojans with 19.
But as USC drew within 10 points, finally building its momentum with slightly more than seven minutes remaining, Utah’s Riley Battin hit a three-pointer in the corner, and Anderson raised his hands in frustration. Enfield called a timeout, hoping to ignite something on the either end.
Nothing sparked. Hope was fading. Seven minutes later, Peterson stood near midcourt, hands on hips, the final seconds of a miserable defeat mercifully ticking away, perhaps taking USC’s title hopes with it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.