Early in the second half at Imperial Arena, Jaxson Robinson hit a jumper to lift BYU to a 32-21 lead over USC Wednesday in The Bahamas.
The game remained close over the next several minutes.
Then the Trojans’ Boogie Ellis got into a groove.
USC (4-1) went on a decisive 18-4 run midway through the second half and ended up defeating the Cougars 82-76 in a first-round game of The Battle 4 Atlantis.
BYU (3-2) trailed by as many as 18 points in the second half with a little more than four minutes remaining. The Cougars rallied, narrowing the deficit to single digits, but the Trojans held on for the victory.
Ellis had his way with BYU, tying a career-high with 27 points. He knocked down 7 of 9 shots from the floor, mostly an array of pull-up 2-pointers, and 13 of 17 from the free throw line.
“They’re a good team. They’re long, they’re skilled. I thought Boogie was absolutely terrific tonight,” said Cougar coach Mark Pope. “We just couldn’t find an answer for him. Their length really bothered us. Their changing defense from man to zone really bothered us with this young, new team.”
Over the final 20 minutes, USC shot 62% compared to 40% for BYU.
Robinson, who scored a career-high 14 points, including 4 of 8 from 3-point range, said his team didn’t have the same energy in the second half as it did in the first half.
“We lost our defensive intensity,” he said. “In the first half, we did a great job of holding those two guys (Ellis and Drew Peterson). In the second half we came out and we didn’t have the intensity that we had in the first half and that really hurt us.”
Gideon George noted the Cougars’ turnovers — 17 — and allowing the Trojans to snatch 10 offensive boards.
“Rebounding and turnovers really hurt us,” said George, who scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds. “We have to fix that as a group. We need to play a game with less turnovers if we want to win on a big stage.”
BYU’s Spencer Johnson also recorded a career-high with 18 points. He was one of five Cougars to make at least two 3-pointers. Rudi Williams had 15 points to go along with four rebounds and six assists. He was 2 of 5 from 3-point territory.
As a team, BYU drilled 12 of 32 3-pointers while USC made just 2 of 10.
But from two-point range, the Trojans were deadly. USC shot 53% overall from the floor for the game.
The Cougars struggled from the free throw line, making only 14 of 22. USC shot even worse from the charity stripe, but it outscored BYU from there by going 18 of 30.
Not only did Ellis shred the Cougars, but Peterson finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and six assists while Reese Dixon-Waters added 13 points and Joshua Morgan chipped in 11.
USC is one of the nation’s tallest teams and its height and length vexed the Cougars at times. The Trojans outscored BYU in the paint 34-20.
“In the second half, we lost our focus on the glass. I thought we were really effective holding them to two offensive rebounds in the first half,” Pope said. “I was really proud of that. In the second half, we kind of collapsed and gave up eight offensive rebounds. Every time we were making some progress in the game, they came up with a really important offensive rebound. It just kills you.”
BYU couldn’t handle USC’s weapons.
“They’re a complicated team because Drew is such an elite-level playmaker. He’s such a problem,” he said. “There are things you don’t try defensively because you believe that he’ll pick you apart. He’s really good. At the end of the day, Boogie in isolation off ball screens was a problem for us. He fed into exactly what we want to give away — we want to give away long, challenged twos. And Boogie’s just like, ‘Yep, give ’em all to me and I’ll make ’em all.’ hey did He shot almost 80% in that area.”
So far this season, the Cougars have been turnover-prone and that pattern continued Wednesday.
“The first helped, we really had a turnover issue,” Pope said. “We had 11 turnovers and so many of them are self-inflicted and that’s super frustrating. It’s just part of us trying to figure things out. We’ll get better with that.”
Forced into desperation mode late in the game, the Cougars used a press, which helped them cut into the deficit and make the game competitive.
“My guys, they have a ton of fight. They’re really beautiful kids,” Pope said. “They’re going to get better because they want to get better so badly. They’ll get more comfortable with each other because they’re going to mature. We’re playing a lot of young guys. They’ve got a lot of fight and a lot of try.”
Pope added that his players were caught up in “concerns and worries and frustrations” during the game, something they need to learn to overcome.
“I’m proud of our guys’ effort at the end, trying to hang in there,” Pope said. “We’re all disappointed with how we played tonight. We’ll play better tomorrow.”
The Cougars face the loser of the game between No. 22 Tennessee and Butler at 4:30 pm MST on Thanksgiving Day in The Bahamas.