USC holds off Washington to win wild Pac-12 tournament opener

The vibes resembled those of a team on the verge of doing something special, not playing out the final moments of a lost season.

USC players hopped in excitement on the bench after Boogie Ellis drove for a breakaway dunk in the final minute. They stood again to applaud Kobe Johnson’s layup that ensured the Trojans would keep playing.

The fashionable dark horse pick to win the Pac-12 tournament was moving on.

Ninth-seeded USC’s 80-74 victory over eighth-seeded Washington in a first-round game Wednesday afternoon represented the Trojans’ season-best fourth consecutive triumph as well as their fifth win in their last six games.

Next up is a rematch with angry Arizona, the Wildcats still smarting from their 13-point loss to the Trojans last week at the Galen Center. The challenge for USC goes beyond the revenge factor. Jockeying for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats have never lost consecutive games under coach Tommy Lloyd as he nears the end of his third season.

USC (15-17) has beaten Washington nine straight times, but this one was hardly a given considering the Huskies’ hot shooting and fight to give outgoing coach Mike Hopkins at least one more day on the job.

After Washington’s Sahvir Wheeler drove for a layup with 3:58 left, the Huskies had matched USC across the board in pulling into a 65-65 tie. But the rest of the meaningful moments belonged to the Trojans.

“I give our players a lot of credit,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “They battled the entire second half when they were down numerous times and found a way to win.”

Wheeler committed a bad foul when he hacked Bronny James on a three-point attempt, James compounding the mistake when he made all three free throws. Ellis added a three-pointer and later made one of two free throws to boost USC into a 72-67 lead.

By the time Ellis pulled down a rebound and raced for a breakaway dunk with 38 seconds left, the Trojans were up 74-67 and their fate was secure.

“It’s win or go home,” Ellis said. “I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to help my team win.”

Staying on brand in a game of high-level shotmaking, Ellis made nine of 15 shots — including five of 10 three-pointers — on the way to 25 points. Johnson added 13 points and eight rebounds for the Trojans while Isaiah Collier was strong across the board with 13 points, seven assists and six rebounds.

Wheeler scored 20 points for the Huskies (17-15), who recently announced that Hopkins would not return next season. His team tried to give him a storybook finish by making nine of its first 13 three-pointers on the way to taking a 42-37 halftime lead that it was unable to sustain.

The story of USC’s late-season surge is no mystery.

Having your intended lineup intact always helps win games. USC has gone 7-4 since getting its entire roster back together after injuries to Collier (hand) and Ellis (hamstring). In games when the Trojans have started their opening-night lineup of Collier, Ellis, Johnson, DJ Rodman and Joshua Morgan, they have gone 11-4.

The first half was intended for anyone who likes dazzling shooting. Washington’s Moses Wood was doing much of it in the final minutes, sandwiching a long jumper between two three-pointers as the Huskies countered every Trojans basket.

After burying a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer, Wood broke into a wide smile. His team was ahead by five points after shooting 57.1%, with Wood converting four of his five attempts from long range on the way to 14 points.

Wood could not sustain his touch, making just one of three shots after halftime. The final minutes belonged to the Trojans, who may not be done making some magic after their midseason disappearing act.

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