With a big smile on his face, USC junior point guard Jordan McLaughlin slowly walked through the bowels of Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, going to meet up with his mother and other family and friends that were waiting to celebrate with the Las Vegas Classic MVP.
McLaughlin had played 79 minutes in two nights, but in the final seconds he mustered the energy to break down the Wyoming defense one final time. He beat his defender and split two forwards that came over to try to block his shot. McLaughlin laid a finger roll off the glass with his left hand with 4.5 seconds remaining in overtime to push the Trojans past a tough Cowboys team, 94-92.
He finished with scored 22 points -- 16 after halftime -- and had five assists while not turning the ball over. Freshmen guards Jonah Mathews and De'Anthony Melton each scored career highs -- 26 and 16 points, respectively -- to help USC overcome Hayden Dalton's 18-point, 18-rebound effort and a pair of 23-point showings from Jason McManamen and Justin James.
Wyoming (10-3) scored on six of its first nine possessions, jumping out to a 15-6 lead before the Trojans caught fire on both ends after a timeout. USC forced three turnovers, blocked a shot and scored on seven straight trips down the floor during an 18-3 run. Wyoming ripped a 12-0 run that was immediately answered by 10 straight USC points. The Trojans built a lead as big as nine points and led 50-44 at halftime.
The Cowboys began the second half with a 7-0 stretch to retake the lead. The teams traded baskets back and forth with Wyoming building a six-point lead halfway through the 20-minute period only to have USC come back. The Trojans went up by four with less than three minutes to go, but gave those four points back to the Cowboys in the form of free throws stemming from offensive fouls called while battling for rebounds.
Still, an Elijah Stewart driving basket and a free throw on the next possession put USC up by three. It had a chance to ice the game, but Stewart missed his second free throw and Melton missed the front end free throw with USC in the bonus. Dalton took advantage, sending the game into overtime with a contested 23-footer from the left wing.
He put the Cowboys up by two with two minutes to go in overtime with a driving layup, but Trojan freshman Nick Rakocevic tied the scored with his own inside shot with 95 seconds remaining. McManamen, who had been red hot in the first half, missed a pair of 3-pointers with the chance to put Wyoming ahead.
McLaughlin would not miss, even with heavy legs.
For the second straight night, USC dominated in the paint (50-28) while its opponent chose to hoist shots from deep. Wyoming attempted 38 three-pointers, making 13 (34.2 percent). The Cowboys were shooting an impressive 46.1 percent on three-pointers after James knocked down one with 11:19 remaining. But they made just one of their final 13 the rest of the night -- Dalton's to tie the game.
USC lost the rebounding battle, 52-45, after giving up 17 offensive boards, including five from McLaughlin's Etiwanda High School teammate -- Jordan Naughton, who finished with eight points and 10 rebounds. The Trojans made up with a +8 turnover margin that led to 23 points off turnovers, including 14 fast break points.
Here's three takeaways from USC's thrilling win over Wyoming on Friday night:
Oh Captain! My Captain!
Jordan McLaughlin secured a perfect non-conference record for USC with a beautiful dribble drive and left-handed layup to win the game in overtime. It was redemption for a prior last second shot attempt that never happened. The Trojans' junior captain's performance on the court was terrific, but just as important was his leadership in the team huddle. READ MORE
Breakthrough for the Babies
When USC fell behind early, it rallied behind its freshman class with dynamic freshman guard duo De'Anthony Melton and Jonah Mathews carrying the load. At one point during USC's 18-3 run, freshmen scored 12 straight points started by a Nick Rakocevic layup. Melton threw down back-to-back slams bookended by a pair of 3-pointers for Mathews.
"My teammates found me in the right spots," Mathews said. "De'Anthony found me a couple of threes that got me going. My game took off from there."
In the first half alone, Melton eclipsed his career high with 16 points while Mathews and forward Harrison Henderson each were one point shy of their career highs. When the second half began, head coach Andy Enfield rode the hot hand, keeping Mathews in the lineup.
"I haven't really played that well the last couple of games, so for them to put me in, I was like 'Wow. I'm here. I've got to ball out,'" Mathews said.
He did. While Melton went cold, Mathews continued to find ways to score after halftime. He added eight points in the second half and made both of his shots in overtime, including a game-tying 3-pointer with 2:42 to go. He finished with a game-high 26 points and, even more impressive, six steals, which was more than Wyoming had as a team.
Melton finished with 19 points. Rakocevic was big down the stretch and in overtime after Chimezie Metu fouled out with 1:44 remaining in regulation. He made both of his field goals, including a game-tying bucket in the final two minutes of overtime that set the stage for McLaughlin's heroics later.
"We expect all of our freshmen to perform. We give them confidence," Enfield said. "I have great assistant coaches and they work with our guys every single day, so when we throw the ball to Nick and we say, 'Rip it through to your right,' you rip it through, you play off of two feet and you shoot your jump hook. He does that every day in practice and that's what he did tonight when the game was on the line."
Rakocevic also had five rebounds and four assists. Henderson only played three minutes, but was productive with two points and two rebounds.
"Psshhh...they play good every night, man," McLaughlin said of the freshman group. "You'll always get something from at least two of them, two out of the three or four that play. They just play big. When they're playing, it feels like they've been in the moment before."
USC wraps up the non-conference portion of the schedule with a perfect 13-0 mark. The schedule wasn't the most difficult, but the Trojans were challenged and still finished unbeaten for the first time since the 1970-71 team that began 16-0.
"We feel great. Best record USC has had in a long time," Mathews said. "13-0, we've got to keep it going. We've got to keep ramping it up. Keep the intensity high, so there we go."
It wasn't always pretty. Friday night was the seventh time that USC has rallied from at least a nine-point deficit to win. While other Pac-12 schools were losing to Northern Iowa, San Francisco, Nevada, Colorado State, Seton Hall, Yale, an awful Savannah State and teams that USC beat (SMU, BYU, New Orleans), the Trojans found ways to win.
"We've been down probably half our games at different times, down by double digits, down at the end, down in the last couple minutes," Enfield said. "Tonight we were down in overtime and we've found a way to win each game, so it says a lot about our young players. They live in the moment. They're not afraid of the moment."
The Trojans will enter Pac-12 play with a target on their back. Everyone is going to want to notch that first win against them and they will be tested immediately with a trip to the Beaver State.
"We've got to just stay focused, take these couple of days off [for Christmas weekend] and then get right back to it, get ready for conference play," McLaughlin said. "It's tough. We start against a couple of good Oregon schools. We've got to go steal a couple on the road."
USC's non-conference slate is done. The Trojans get to work on the Pac-12 schedule next week when they open the conference slate against Oregon State on Wednesday at 8 p.m. The Beavers are the worst team in the Pac-12 this season. They had lost nine of 10 before winning earlier this week. One of their losses came to Savannah State, which Oregon had beat by 69 the previous week. However, star forward Tres Tinkle could return from a broken wrist to face the Trojans.
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