Boogie Ellis waved hello with three fingers. The fifth-year guard swished a three-pointer on his first shot after a three-game absence, flashing three fingers toward a sold-out Galen Center crowd. Briefly, he looked like USC’s best hope to save its season.
But Ellis’ eight-point flurry in seven minutes against the Bruins could do little to shift USC’s offensive misfortunes. The team’s problems are too large for just the leading scorer to solve.
UCLA held USC to its lowest scoring total of the season in a 65-50 loss Saturday. As effortlessly as the Trojans (8-12, 2-7 Pac-12) ripped off a 10-point run in the first half, they also let UCLA bury them in a 22-4 avalanche going into halftime. USC allowed the Bruins (9-11, 4-5 Pac-12) to carry the momentum of the run for the rest of the game, forward Joshua Morgan admitted sheepishly.
The Trojans never found a second gear despite the high stakes. They had won five in a row at home against their rivals. The team’s NCAA tournament hopes are fading with each game tacked onto the losing streak. The five consecutive losses are the most for the program since 2015.
“We’ve gotta have some more pride,” Ellis said. “At the end of the day, we had a lot of guys on last year’s team who really knew how much it meant to us. I feel like we just gotta establish the culture. We got a lot of young guys now. We just gotta want it more.”
Even with Ellis back from a nagging hamstring injury, USC’s offense is still stuck in neutral without freshman point guard Isaiah Collier.
USC is averaging 61.2 points in its last five games after averaging 77.9 points in the first 16 games. Ellis reinjured his hamstring in a loss to Washington State that also saw Collier injure his right hand. The backcourt tandem missed three consecutive road games before Ellis returned Saturday on one day’s practice. Collier, the No. 1-ranked recruit in his class, will sit out two to four more weeks because of a right hand injury.
For the Trojans, his return can’t come soon enough.
“I feel like Zay, he does a great job of getting in the paint, he draws a lot of attention. Teams can’t really sit in the gaps as much because he’s going to find the open shooter,” Ellis said. “I feel like we gotta continue to move the ball, make our open shots, feed the ball in the post, play inside-out. … At the end of the day, we just gotta make shots.”
Sophomore Oziyah Sellers was the only Trojan to score in double figures Saturday, notching 10 points on three-for-three shooting. With no one in rhythm on offense, coach Andy Enfield said he drew up different plays in the second half to try to get various players going. The Trojans tried to post up Kobe Johnson, who was just three-for-seven shooting for eight points. Sellers was the target on two plays. So was Bronny James, who went scoreless from the field on three shots and picked up an early technical foul for taunting UCLA’s Dylan Andrews after a blocked shot.
After Ellis scored eight points on his first four shots, UCLA — the best scoring defense in the Pac-12 — dialed up its defense to face guard Ellis and deny him the ball. He missed his final six shots.
“Offense is a team game,” Enfield said. “You have to share the ball, you have to make plays for your teammates and then when it’s your time to step up and make a shot, you hope you can do that at a certain percentage, and unfortunately, we had a little trouble doing that for most of the game.”
While Enfield, Morgan and Ellis all emphasized the team is staying positive in trying to improve, Ellis is also resigned. Even with more than half of the Pac-12 slate to go, he knows each little bit of progress during the regular season needs to pay off in Las Vegas, site of the Pac-12 Conference tournament.
“From here on out, I feel like we just need to focus on doing what we can do, taking it one game at a time and getting better for the Pac-12 tournament,” Ellis said, “because we have to win it.”