College Hoops

Michigan State returns to defensive roots, stifles USC star to advance

Michael Cohen

COLUMBUS, Ohio โ€” The second consecutive 3-pointer in less than a minute prompted USC head coach Andy Enfield to call timeout, the referee’s whistle granting star point guard Boogie Ellis a merciful reprieve. Ellis, the Trojans’ leading scorer, gasped for air on the opposite end of the court โ€”ย chest heaving, breath wheezing, shoulders drooping โ€”ย as the collection of stools where his teammates sat seemed so close and, yet, so agonizingly far. He staggered into Enfield’s huddle long after everyone else and pounded his chair in frustration.

This type of fatigue was unusual for Ellis, an 18-point-per-game scorer whose average climbed north of 20 over his last 12 outings, a first-team all-conference performer in the Pac-12. Nearly 17 minutes elapsed before he scored his first point against seventh-seeded Michigan State on Friday. His streak of 16 consecutive games with at least one 3-pointer was shattered after three off-target heaves. The only team that limited Ellis to fewer points than the measly six he mustered on 3-for-12 shooting was Cal State Fullerton, on Dec. 7, in a game the Trojans won anyway.

“They did a good job,” Ellis said in the postgame news conference. “I let my teammates down today. I didn’t make shots. And they made things tough for me. Just team defense, jumping to the ball. Being on all the gaps, pretty much.”ย 

“They” was a reference to Michigan State’s pair of sticky, stubborn and suffocating guards โ€” Tyson Walker and Jaden Akins โ€”ย who disrupted Ellis from the opening possession until the moment he received his fifth foul, with 33 seconds remaining in the second half, at which point he finally escaped their clutches through the agony of disqualification. Ellis shrouded himself in a towel along the bench as the clock melted toward elimination, toward a 72-62 defeat. He yanked it from his head to his shoulders while commiserating with a teammate. He was still wearing it when head coach Tom Izzo briefly stopped him in the handshake line for some kindhearted consolation.

Izzo had spoken glowingly about Ellis during his pregame news conference on Thursday, and he would do so again after a victory that sent Michigan State to the Round of 32 for a second consecutive year. He recognized how dangerous a quick-shifting, volume-shooting guard could be for a group of Spartans whose defense was withering down the stretch. Large chunks of his media sessions in recent weeks…

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