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    USC closes out Washington to reach Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals
    • March 13, 2024

    LAS VEGAS — USC men’s basketball coach Andy Enfield pointed to the bullpen to summon his closer, and Isaiah Collier ambled to the scorer’s table, a brief minute of rest finished before one final fourth-quarter push.

    He plays with confidence, now, and this program has confidence in him. In the beginnings of the year, Collier was mere brushstrokes of the player USC envisioned they were getting out of high school, the powerful top-ranked recruit bruising others and himself in a rough start. He scored, yes – but often played haywire in final minutes, out of control, and with the ball in his hands USC’s season too often slipped in the closing minutes.

    But a few months later, Collier’s growth as a decision-maker has been ascendant. And with ninth-seeded USC clinging to a three-point lead late upon his re-entry for Bronny James, Collier’s steady hand and a pair of key free throws late closed out eighth-seeded Washington 80-74 in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament on Wednesday afternoon.

    “I mean, earlier in the season, he made freshman mistakes – like, we expected it,” junior wing Kobe Johnson said after the game. “But throughout the course of this season, he’s really locked in, when we got the ball and with the lead. He’s learned how to win games for us.”

    After snaring a rebound, Collier controlled the pace with time ticking under three minutes, eventually firing off a pass to USC captain Boogie Ellis on the wing. A red-hot Ellis caught and fired a deep 3-pointer in smooth rhythm, an early dagger before turning back to sparse early-afternoon stands in Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena and wagging his tongue.

    Ellis finished with 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting, USC’s captain bringing his absolute best in what could be his final run in a Trojans jersey. And as the buzzer sounded and USC advanced to the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, Johnson – who stuffed the stat sheet with 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals – held his pointer finger up aloft: One down.

    “I told the guys, we only have 20 minutes guaranteed,” Ellis said, describing a halftime speech. “Just come out with urgency. In the first half, Coach told us that we were kind of lackadaisical a little bit.”

    “We fixed it in the second half,” Ellis continued, “but tomorrow we can’t come out like that. Tomorrow, we’ve got to come out with a lot more energy.”

    The reason: USC (15-18) will face top-seeded Arizona (24-7, 15-5 Pac-12) on Thursday afternoon, whom the Trojans beat Saturday but will prove as stiff a test as any team USC will face in Vegas. The Wildcats boast a strong duo in big Oumar Ballo and guard Caleb Love, who was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year by coaches earlier this week. USC held Love to just 1-of-10 shooting in their meeting Saturday, however, and Ellis seemed wholly unconcerned with the prospect of facing him again.

    “I’m just here, just trying to get a win,” Ellis said postgame, when asked about playing Love. “I don’t really care about none of that stuff.”

    Indeed, as Ellis said, USC came out lackadaisical. Washington took a quick 19-10 lead off an avalanche of 3-pointers, the Huskies’ Koren Johnson firing off one corner triple and turning to USC’s bench in a taunt before the ball had even touched net.

    USC settled quickly, though, captain Kobe Johnson keying improved defensive activity with a turnover-forcing trap on Huskies top scorer Keion Brooks Jr., whom USC held to just 13 points on 4-of-16 shooting. Clean offensive sets from Enfield, generating perimeter looks on dribble handoffs, and opening interior feeds to bigs from Ellis and Collier keyed a 9-0 run in response. But Washington continued to find open gaps in any USC defensive look – zone or man – in the corners, hitting five first-half corner threes, with the Huskies’ Moses Wood catching fire with four first-half threes and a one-handed miracle buzzer-beater to put Washington up five at half.

    Both offenses traded blows in the second half, Ellis coming alive, matched by shotmaking from Washington’s backcourt of Koren Johnson and Sahvir Wheeler, who combined for 37. In a tight final stretch, though, freshman Collier calmly put his finger on the pulse, euro-stepping his way to a layup to tie the game with 7:28 left and whizzing a pass to center Joshua Morgan for a dunk to put USC up the next possession.

    He finished with 13 points and seven assists against three turnovers, controlling a game in which he took just six shots, a far cry from the early-season Collier that often let live balls slip through green fingers or forced layups off the rim. He’s gritted through a tumultuous season, a string of personal tragedies surfacing lingering emotions few have seen, facing a litany of external pressures from his role as USC’s engine to his future draft stock. He broke his hand in January; instead of throwing in the towel on his season, he pushed to return as quickly as possible, watching a litany of film on close-game mistakes as his IQ grew off the court.

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    “It was just, getting back to being me,” Collier told the Southern California News Group in the locker room postgame.

    And USC is making a push now in Vegas, behind him.

    Wheeler finished with 20 points for the now-eliminated Huskies and Wood had 17. James had seven points, including three crucial late free throws, and five rebounds in a major defensive impact for USC.

    ​ Orange County Register