The 8-9 game is one that you never want to find yourself in. First, you are likely to play a team that is pretty evenly matched with you and second, if you do win, you are likely to play the number one seed. It’s not a draw that is made for a sustained NCAA run. Indeed, Southern Cal turned out to be that evenly matched opponent. While the Trojans lacked the true Kris Dunn-Ben Bentil superstar players that Providence featured, they did have an extremely balanced and efficient offense and one that could drain threes at an impressive rate.
With five players averaging in double-figure scoring and a team rate of 38 percent on three point attempts, it was a legitimate question to wonder whether the Friars would be able to match USC offensively.
The Friars, and Kris Dunn (16 points, 4 assists), started out well enough. Although they fell behind 4-0 and 13-9, three pointers by Dunn, Bentil and Jalen Lindsey and a layup by Lindsey pushed PC out to a 21-15 lead. At 24-19, both teams went cold and when Dunn picked up his second sloppy foul with 8:41 to play, he went to the bench. Although Kyron Cartwright (10 points, 6 assists) also had two fouls, he was forced to remain in the game and did a good job keeping PC’s offense moving.
After Bentil (19 points, 9 rebounds) hit a jumper, PC led 33-29 but Nikola Jovanovic and Malik Marquetti jumpers tied the score, and after Rodney Bullock (16 points, 10 rebounds) hit two free throws, Katin Reinhardt buried a three with 1:01 on the clock for a 36-35 USC lead. PC had the ball last with 12 seconds left but a late drive by Cartwright led to a layup attempt that spun off the rim.
USC had switched to zone midway through the first half and stayed in zone to start the second. PC, for its part, seemed content to float around the perimeter and launch threes, with limited but timely success. PC led 44-43 on a Dunn three with just over 15 minutes to play, but over the next five minutes endured a scoring drought that saw the Trojans, sparked by two baskets by Jovanovic, a driving layup by Jordan McLaughlin and a bucket by Reinhardt, led 51-46 at that point.
Cartwright and Dunn hit two free throws each and then Dunn knocked down a big three to trim the lead to 56-53. Jovanovic converted on a layup and then Julian Jacobs threw down a dunk that stretched the lead to 60-53 with 7:41 to play and Providence looked to be in trouble, having no answers defensively for USC’s crisp passing game.
Cartwright answered with a huge three but with 7:03 left, Dunn picked up his fourth foul and returned to the bench. Amazingly, PC responded with an 8-0 run to take the lead, 61-60, on a Drew Edwards’ jumper and a deep Bullock three. McLaughlin and Bennie Boatwright scored, along with Jovanovic free throws, to retake the lead at 66-61 and Dunn returned for the final three-plus minutes. He made his presence felt immediately, hitting a jumper, and then after two Reinhardt freebies, stealing the ball from McLaughlin and feeding Bentil for a monster dunk. Bentil returned the favor by coming up with a Jacobs’ turnover and Dunn’s three-pointer knotted the score at 68-all with 1:27 to play.
Boatwright hit one of two free throws with 58 ticks left and unbeknownst to all, that would conclude USC’s scoring for the night. Lindsey missed a three but McLaughlin had a layup attempt miss and when Dunn missed a jumper, Bentil fouled Elijah Stewart. Stewart cooperated by missing the front end of a one-and-one and Bentil snared the rebound. Coming out of a timeout, the Friars went inside to Bentil but he was blocked at the rim by Chimezie Metu. He attempted again but the ball went out of bounds under the basket and after a review that determined that Bentil had touched it last, the Trojans gained possession of the ball with 15 seconds left.
Jacobs raced up the right sideline with the ball but Cartwright cut across with minimal contact and the ball appeared to go out of bounds off Jacobs but the officials whistled Cartwright for the foul. Jacobs also cooperated by missing the front end of his one-and-one with 12 seconds to play and Bentil grabbed the rebound. PC quickly advanced the ball and Dunn missed a 12-footer but the ball went out of bounds off a Trojan under the USC basket, setting up a final last-gasp attempt.
With three seconds on the clock, Edwards in-bounded the ball from the baseline and as USC’s defenders collapsed around Dunn, Bullock snuck out to the right, all alone. Edwards quickly passed him the ball and the sophomore forward stepped in for the last second, uncontested layup for the win. Southern Cal’s bench could only look on in disbelief.
The Trojans had shot 54 percent for the game (to PC’s 40 percent) and their offense had hummed along at an efficient rate. They outrebounded PC, 35-31. They lost the game on a couple of fronts. First, PC hit 11-14 free throws compared to 7-13 for the Trojans. The misses down the stretch were killers. Second, the Friars had 6 turnovers to USC’s 12. PC was able to limit mistakes and capitalize on USC’s occasional carelessness with the ball. Finally, the pace played to PC’s favor, with the normally high scoring Trojans (81 ppg) held to 69 points, even though they shot it well. And one final factor was the three-point shooting. PC settled for too many long-range shots, attempting 24 three pointers, while making 9. But, because USC was getting inside effectively, they actually didn’t take enough, considering their accuracy, hitting 6-13 (46 percent).
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For their efforts, the 24-10 Friars get to take on top-seeded North Carolina on Saturday in Raleigh at 9:50 p.m. in what is shaping up to be another Dayton-type situation – not exactly on the Tar Heel’s home court, but close enough. Still, PC and Ed Cooley have finally grabbed that first NCAA win and that, in itself, should feel good enough.