For the past two weeks, as the pieces finally started to fit for USC, Boogie Ellis had been the glue, a once-streaky point guard finally coming into his own as the engine of a suddenly soaring offense.
But as those pieces began to come apart Thursday for USC, its senior point guard was left to hold them together by himself, firing one three-pointer after another, emptying his tank until only fumes remained and a fifth foul sent him to the bench for good.
It would go down as yet another standout effort for Ellis, who set a career high in scoring for the second time in four games. But it wasn’t nearly enough for USC, as the Trojans were trampled by No. 8 Arizona in an 87-81 loss.
The Wildcats once again pushed them around, outmuscling the Trojans underneath and exploiting every part of a USC defense that suddenly seemed vulnerable against Arizona’s size and strength.
It was a similar script to USC’s defeat in Tucson earlier this season. Even 35 points from Ellis could take the Trojans only so far in a matchup that looked nightmarish on paper — and even more so afterward.
With each answer from Ellis, Arizona would offer its own full-throated response, using all of the weapons at its disposal to overpower USC, which has now officially locked in the No. 3 seed in next week’s Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.
“When we play Arizona, every possession matters,” said Ellis, who set his career high while dealing with a cold. “We tried to cut it to 10, and they hit a big three. We’re about to cut it to nine, they hit another big three. So we just have to lock in as a team.”
A back injury to Drew Peterson would make matching up with Arizona especially difficult. As the Trojans’ second-leading scorer labored through 29 minutes, he was far less effective than usual, scoring only five points.
“He just couldn’t move, couldn’t get by people,” USC coach Andy Enfield said.
Arizona had little trouble getting by USC’s defense, which gave up 34 points in the paint. Even as Enfield set out to counter Arizona’s size, the Trojans still struggled to find an answer, cycling through different lineups, including several with two big men on the court at the same time.
It was no use, especially with multiple Trojans in early foul trouble. Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis took advantage in the meantime, scoring 25 points and pulling down 10 rebounds, once again punishing USC at every level of its defense.
It was hardly the kind of performance the Trojans would’ve hoped for, with a chance to make a major statement on its tournament resume.
Everything had been clicking for USC coming into Thursday. The Trojans rolled into the final week of the regular season on a four-game win streak, finally firing on all cylinders and sitting on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble.
They were scorching from deep during that stretch, knocking down nearly half of their last 100 attempts from three-point range. They were dominating on defense, holding those four opponents to 37% shooting. And their senior point guard was playing some of the best basketball of his college career, just as it was winding down.
But this week, Ellis still couldn’t shake the bitter taste left over from USC’s defeat at Arizona. He vowed to be more aggressive, carrying the Trojans on his back if he had to.
He wasted no time in carrying out that vow Thursday. Ellis came out firing confidently, scoring 11 of USC’s first 16 points.
The problem for USC was no one else stepped up. Peterson had zero points at halftime. The rest of USC’s starting lineup had combined to shoot one for nine from the field.
And by that time, Ellis’ aggressive approach was already having unintended consequences. He picked up his third foul with more than two minutes left in the first half.
“Did not make it easy to beat a team like Arizona,” Enfield said.
The Trojans might get another shot in short order. With USC locked in as second seed in the tournament, it’s likely to face Arizona in the semifinals, assuming it can survive its second-round matchup Thursday.
Ellis was already champing at the bit for that third chance.
“We’re gonna see these guys again,” Ellis said. “That was a great team, the No. 8 team in the country. But I feel like we can beat them. I don’t feel like they’re that much better than us. We just have to regroup.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.