USC's 12-19 Trojans were considered down, probably even out, as they trailed 60-46 with nine minutes remaining Wednesday in Las Vegas. Maybe some hope would creep in when the lead was cut to just five, 60-55, with 4:44 to play. But even an optimist would be largely doubtful. But then something changed. USC made the adjustments, putting the pressure on ASU to close out the game, and the Sun Devils melted.
“We didn’t really want to go out losing to a team that we felt we should have beaten in the past and that this was a winnable game,” Julian Jacobs said.
The Trojans fell behind by 10 at halftime as their best player during the regular season, Nikola Jovanovic, was quiet from the field after picking up two early fouls. The bench scoring was nowhere to be found and Arizona State was attacking inside for easy buckets. Despite all that, after struggling to hold on to the basketball for almost 31 minutes, USC’s clutch gene finally came to life.
Elijah Stewart scored 10 points over that final stretch as the Trojans themselves shot 57-percent in the second half. To be honest, Stewart was outstanding. Both in defending Shaq McKissic (5-18 shooting) and in making clutch shots, the true freshman showed why he’s considered USC’s most dynamic player.
“(I’ve) Just been putting in the preparation for this game . . .” Stewart said, following a career-high 27-point effort. “And it showed in the game.”
Even when USC cut the lead to one, 62-61, with 2:38 to play, there was a growing sense they would make another mistake. To be fair, the Trojans committed 17 turnovers in the game. In fact, the game should have been over when Bo Barnes (15 points) faked out Katin Reinhardt into a bail-out three-shot foul with 4:11 left. Unlike the seven previous times USC lost a game by seven or less inside the final two minutes, the Trojans made big plays down the stretch.
“We have never let those losses define who we are or where our program is going,” said Andy Enfield, who won his first tournament game as USC head coach.
USC responded, big time, when Darion Clark made an over-the-shoulder layup giving the Trojans their first lead since the opening two minutes, 63-62. Following another missed shot by Arizona State, Julian Jacobs provided some cushion by flashing into the paint and contorting his body for an incredible finish and score.
In a game where USC did nothing particularly well, they then found a way to limit what ASU wanted to do most. The Sun Devils missed their final seven shots from behind the arc, giving the 12th-seeded underdogs a chance at redemption.
Then came the final punch.
Nikola Jovanovic had played a poor game up until that point, probably one of his worst given the ramifications of the game. To his credit though, the Serbian forward came to life on the defensive end of the floor. With the game basically on the line, as USC held a slim one point lead with 16 seconds left, Jovanovic was left in a tough position. Guard the three-point shooter up top, or sink back into the paint and prepare for a drive to the bucket from Shaquielle McKissic.
Jovanovic made the right choice, diving back to the block awaiting the dribble drive. McKissic drove past Jacobs on an excellent move, leaving the basket all alone for a (possible) game-winning bucket. Instead of cowering in the moment, Jovanovic stepped up and swatted away ASU’s chance at winning.
“I was telling the guys (that) we can’t relax,” Jovanovic said. “We needed to get those free throws in and go back on defense and get a stop.”
It then became apparent that USC needed to seal this game at the line, unlike an earlier game against Cal where Jordan McLaughlin missed the second free throw of a two-shot foul leading to a game-winning three pointer at the buzzer. Somehow in the first half, the Pac-12’s worst free throw shooting team went 6-8 in front of the “Curtain of Distraction.” Stewart then did what USC hadn’t done all season. He nailed the final two shots that absolutely needed to be made.
Stewart scored a career-high 27 points on 8-14 shooting, as the Trojans rode that impressive 21-4 run to their first Pac-12 Tournament victory since 2011.
USC is now 5-17 this season when trailing at half, 3-12 when outrebounded by the opponent, and 1-15 when trailing with 5:00 left. All those facets were against the Trojans tonight. Yet head coach Andy Enfield finally got his team to win a close game when it mattered, and that’s all you need come March.
You could even call this one the Jaelen Strong revenge game, except USC was the one storming back from behind. That’s a huge step for this young program, and now USC prepares to face UCLA on Thursday for a trip to the Pac-12 Tournament Semifinals: likely against top seeded Arizona.