Boogie Ellis, Isaiah Mobley lead No. 20 USC to win over Utah in Pac-12 opener

USC forward Isaiah Mobley pulls down a rebound against Utah guard Both Gach (2) and guard Lazar Stefanovic (20) during the second half Wednesday at Galen Center. (Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

It’s a quick two-syllable exclamation, uttered so fast it sounds like one. In and out the ear. “Boogie!”

The PA announcer for USC calls it most anytime junior guard Boogie Ellis gets a bucket. If Wednesday night’s season opener of Pac-12 play was any indication, Trojans fans better get used to hearing it at Galen Center this season.

“We’ve seen it all this year,” junior forward Max Agbonkpolo said with a grin. “When he gets hot, he gets hot.”

No. 20 USC jumped all over Utah on Wednesday night, riding an eight-point run by Ellis in less than 1:30 of game clock in the first half to run away with a 93-73 win. Talented big Isaiah Mobley added a double-double as the Trojans improved to 7-0.

With a little over two minutes remaining before halftime, USC had largely stifled Utah, but couldn’t quite shake the Utes with a nine-point lead. It was time to Boogie.

Six seconds after a Utes layup, Ellis calmly splashed a three. On the Trojans’ next possession, Mobley drove and fired a pass to the right corner for Ellis, who rotated in the air for another shot from distance that hit nothing but twine.

Then came an Ellis breakaway jam, a Mobley bucket, an Ethan Anderson and-one on a fast break; suddenly, the Galen Center was erupting over a 20-point lead.

“After a year of, I call, silence,” Mobley said of the fans’ energy, “it’s extremely fun.”

A transfer from Memphis, where he was the AAC Co-Sixth Man of the Year in 2020-21, Ellis came into Wednesday night averaging nearly 15 points a game.

He scored 19 more against the Utes on a flurry of stop-and-pop jumpers and breakaway dunks, further endearing himself to a Trojans crowd that stood to boo relentlessly when he was called for a flop a few minutes into the second half.

Ellis is the cherry of an addition on top of a deep Trojans team that’s taken strides in development. Last season’s superstar Evan Mobley – Isaiah’s older brother – was taken with the 3rd pick of the NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and second-leading scorer Tahj Eddy is now in the G-League. But these Trojans return nine players from last year’s squad that streaked to the Elite Eight last season.

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Isaiah Mobley tested the NBA draft waters in the offseason, but elected to return to USC. When he walked back in the gym after the draft combine, he said knew instantly these Trojans had potential to be a top team in college basketball.

“I was like, ‘Woah,’” Mobley said. “They didn’t get the championship hangover. I was like, ‘OK, I got better’— if we all can put this together, we can do something special.”

USC forward Max Agbonkpolo, left, celebrates a dunk with guard Boogie Ellis during the second half against Utah on Wednesday. (Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

The key to their undefeated run to open the season — their best start since a 14-game win streak in 2016-17 — is a swarming defense that had held opponents to under 32% shooting. That presence was on full display in the first half Wednesday night.

Mobley’s 7-foot-3 wingspan and verticality forced Utes wings into awkward layup attempts around the rim. Sophomore center Joshua Morgan — who coach Andy Enfield called “one of the best defensive big men we’ve had here at USC” after a Nov. 25 win over Saint Joseph’s — notched four resounding blocks on the night.

When the dust settled at halftime, the Trojans had forced five turnovers and held the Utes to 30% shooting from the floor in the first half.

Their intensity waned at times in the second, leading to a few too many open threes for Utah. After the Utes’ leading scorer Branden Carlson exited with an injury in the first half, however, Utah had no answer down low for Mobley, whose two-way efforts in the second half preserved a cushy lead for USC.

“He was a complete player tonight,” coach Andy Enfield said.

A breakaway alley-oop from Ellis to junior forward Max Agbonkpolo late in the second half put an emphatic finishing touch on the night.

Agbonkpolo had an uneven start to his USC career, shooting less than 40% from the field across his first two seasons. But he’s been a difference-maker when Enfield’s inserted him into the starting lineup this season, and he played the best game of his career Wednesday night.

“I love this team,” he said postgame. “I think we’re going to turn a lot of heads – we’re going to go far in the tournament.”

The Utah clash marked a quick start to USC’s play in the Pac-12; in fact, it’s the only league in the country where conference play has begun. Wednesday’s contest gave the Trojans an early look at how they’ll stack up in the conference against a Utes team that looked improved from a 12-13 record the previous season.

The Trojans were ranked 3rd in the Pac-12 entering the season. They’ll have another shot at a conference opponent on Saturday against Washington State (6-1).

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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