New Mexico's Hugh Greenwood attempts to steal the ball from USC's… (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / US Presswire )
In first halves this season, USC's offense plays like it just climbed out of a grave, zombie-like in every sense.
It staggers around for 20 minutes while, somehow, its defense shows strong vital signs.
After halftime, USC's offense finally starts to stir — only it's a little slow, a little late and often not enough.
On Saturday, USC lost in this manner again, falling, 44-41, to New Mexico before 3,863 at the Galen Center.
USC guard Maurice Jones, who scored a game-high 19 points, missed a potential tying three-point shot at the buzzer.
Seven of USC's 10 games have been decided by seven points or fewer, and the Trojans (4-6) have lost four of them.
"The games are close because we play hard on defense," USC Coach Kevin O'Neill said.
True. New Mexico's 44 points were a season-low, a mark opponents often have set against USC during O'Neill's tenure.
But the Trojans have played enough of these close games that they ought to know how to win more of them.
What's wrong? No offense — at least early on.
"We're not getting good enough starts to the games," Center Dewayne Dedmon said.
USC trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half against the Lobos (7-2) but fought back in the second behind its stifling defense, which held New Mexico to zero field goals in the final 14 minutes 16 seconds.
An 11-2 push gave USC a 41-40 lead with 1:51 left.
New Mexico re-took the lead on two free throws and hit another pair with 17.9 seconds left.
Jones' attempt at a tying three-pointer was an air ball. There appeared to be contact, but no foul was called.
"We're frustrated, tired of losing," Jones said. "We've just got to fix it."
Both teams shot 33% from the field, but New Mexico, which was led by UCLA transfer Drew Gordon's 13 points and 13 rebounds, had a big advantage at the free-throw line. It made 15 of 20 attempts, USC just three of five.
"That means you're not playing with enough force," O'Neill said of the disparity.
USC also was out-rebounded, 36-23, and fell to 1-6 this season when on the short end of that statistic.
New Mexico Coach Steve Alford described the game as ugly, but for USC it could have been hideous.
Remember, the Trojans scored 36 in a loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo last month — their lowest output since scoring 35 in 1967.
And they were on pace to fall far short of that when they had just 15 at halftime Saturday, their lowest half this season.
"We eased into the game, which got us into a hole," O'Neill said.
USC falls into those often.
Now, if it could only figure out how to climb out of one.