LOS ANGELES — A cold start and a hot finish was not an effective combination Saturday night at the Galen Center.
Down by as much as 17 in the first half, USC launched a comeback campaign late in the second half against No. 14 Minnesota, but key free throws and poor shot selection down the stretch kept them from getting closer than nine points, ultimately falling, 71-57.
Slow starts are fast becoming a signature for USC (3-6). The Trojans missed their first three shots of the game while the Golden Gophers opened up on a 9-0 run. Energy was the factor that Kevin O’Neal continually brought up, citing low levels at the onset of the game.
“We had a stretch of about six or seven minutes in the first half where we had a lot of guys playing with low energy levels,” O’Neal said. “We need to be completely on our game to be in that position and we weren’t.”
The energy level of the team was so low it forced O’Neal to switch the defense to a 2-3 zone instead of man-to-man. The zone press was effective, especially late in the first half when the Gophers (10-1) were visibly frustrated by two shot clock violations and just 10 points in the final five minutes of the half.
“We had them at 40 percent for most of the night, which isn’t bad,” O’Neal said. “From what I saw tonight our man will get better when don’t play low-energy guys. Low energy guys won’t help with man-to-man.”
Omar Oraby had his best showing of the season. The Trojans shot repeated bricks until Oraby and his hot hand came off the bench. Jio Fontan then shifted the offense and ran it through the post. The 7-foot-2 center out of Egypt finished with 15 points, four rebounds and two blocks in a season-high 22 minutes to lead the Trojans.
“He’s going to have to get a ton of time,” O’Neal said. “That’s the best he’s played, obviously all season. We’ve got to go to him, we’ve got to run things between he and Jio basically.”
The Trojans showed flashes of a rally late in the first half. Attempting to carry that over, the second half began with a strong defensive pressure but once again, USC struggled to match that effort on offense. A little over five minutes into the second period the offensive stride was finally hit.
Oraby went on a 7-0 run by himself starting with a turnaround jumper to make the score 47-32 at 14:28. Maverick Ahanmisi then missed a three for the Gophers and Oraby hit a short jumper and drew the foul. Two possessions later, Oraby spun into the paint and laid one off the glass to bring the Trojans to within 11, 47-36.
Oraby repeated the move later in the half. Following a Byron Wessley three from the wing, Oraby spund down the baseline and dropped in the shot over two defenders, once again making the deficit 11, 61-50.
“My teammates did a good job of finding me,” Oraby said. “I’ve been struggling the last few games. I just tried to play as hard as I can.”
But what Oraby didn’t do was hit two key free throws. The big man failed to make the front end of two 1-and-1s, the first at 7:52 and the second with 3:52 left to play.
“If we had made those two one-and-ones on both ends, then it’s a six-point game going down to the end and you can feel the pressure,” O’Neal said. “We never put any real pressure on them at all.”
Oraby went just 1-for-5 at the line.
“I’m a good free throw shooter, I don’t know what went wrong today,” Oraby said.
Minnesota had no problem knocking down their free throws in the closing minutes. Andre Hollins and Trevor Mbakwe each made a pair in the final three minutes. Oraby launched himself for a massive dunk to make the score 67-56 with just under two minutes to play, but a layup by Hollins and a final dunk by Joe Coleman gave the Gophers a win.
USC has now dropped five-straight games, three to ranked opponents. The 0-3 mark is not lost on O’Neal and he put the blame on those slow starts. A shakeup to the starting lineup is now in order.
“We have to play different guys, that’s what we’re going to do.” O’Neal said. “We have to play guys that play with energy all of the time, and we’re going to play guys that play with force and play guys that play team basketball.”
It was a milestone win for Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith, as he earned his 500th career victory. But while his players celebrated their coach’s achievement after the game, Smith wasn’t even aware of it until it was brought to his attention.
“You are so in the moment during the journey,” Smith said. “You don’t even realize it until somebody tells you.”