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3-Pointer: Trojans never say die in dramatic comeback

Three takeaways from USC basketball's dramatic come-from-behind 75-71 win over Providence in the First Four round of the NCAA tournament in Dayton, Ohio.

Chimezie Metu knifed through the lane, caught a pass from the wing and threw down a monster dunk. The bucket pushed USC's lead over Providence to five points with 3:38 to go. USC, whose high-flying attack led them to a 146-to-65 advantage in dunks this season, finally had their first slam of the night.

It was an emphatic punctuation for the Trojans after rallying from a 17-point second half deficit. And unlike previous end-of-game situations, USC took care of business after Metu's dunk. They scored points on each of their next five possessions, getting offensive rebounds on their only two field goal misses and sinking six free throws in the final 83 seconds to secure a 75-71 win in the First Four round of the NCAA tournament in Dayton, Ohio.

The Trojans' 12th double-digit comeback and 14th by nine or more points was a manner of redemption for USC (25-9) after it had blown a lead late and lost in the final seconds against Providence (20-13) in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament. It was the Trojans' first NCAA tournament win since 2009 and just the second time in school history they have reached 25 wins.

"That's the best win in USC basketball in probably the last decade, ," Andy Enfield told the team in the locker room after the win. "You held them to 27 points in the second half. You ramped up your defense. You deserved to win this game.

"We are not done...Tomorrow when we wake up we'll get after it because we're going to win another couple games."

Bennie Boatwright scored a game-high 24 points, making 8 of his 16 attempts even though he was just 3 for 10 on three-pointers. Metu was just 3 for 9 from the field, but knocked down nine free throws to finish with 15 points. He also had eight rebounds, including six of USC's 16 offensive rebounds.

Jordan McLaughlin played his best basketball in the final 11-minute stretch. He struggled shooting for much of the game, but shot 3 for 5 down the stretch, grabbing board after board to finish with an 18-point (7-15), 10-rebound double-double. 

"I think McLaughlin is a great player," Providence head coach Ed Cooley said. "I think that team will go as he goes. We talked to the team about that. He's the guy that steers their entire program. Really, really good basketball player. He can beat you in a lot of different ways."

Emmitt Holt led Providence with 18 points and also grabbed 11 rebounds for a double-double. Jalen Lindsey and leading scorer Rodney Bullock both had 17 points. Lindsey scored 15 in the first half, making four three-pointers, but he and the Friars managed only five long distance attempts in the second half.

The Friars outshot USC 49 to 42 percent for the game, but it was a tale of two halves as the Trojans shot 50 percent in the second half. USC also created six more field goal attempts and 10 more free throws. 

Here's three takeaways from USC's 75-71 win over Providence in the First Four round of the NCAA tournament on Wednesday night:

Triple Bigs

For the first time this season, Andy Enfield made the decision to go the a three-forward lineup, playing Bennie Boatwright at the small forward with Chimezie Metu and Nick Rakocevic down lwo and forcing the smaller frontline of Providence to try to defend in the post and rebound against bigger bodies. USC was able to use Boatwright's matchup ability to isolate Friar defenders. 

The Trojans used cross screens to get Boatwright the ball, throwing it into the post when he got a smaller players defending him and taking it to the wing when Providence's bigs were on him. That helped open up the paint even more for Jordan McLaughlin's drives and for offensive rebound opportunities.

"We played big for at least 10, 12 minutes of the game," Enfield said. "We were just trying to do anything we could to try to see what would work, and we just gave it a shot. I give our players credit, because when you don't play like that for an entire season and you're in a NCAA Tournament game in the second half, that was really special for them to adjust and to play so well together."

USC was only able to use the three-forward lineup because of how well Rakocevic played in the second half. After looking like a freshman the first 20 minutes when he went 1 for 3 and missed a couple of opportunities for baskets at the rim, Rakocevic was a game changer in the second half as USC tried to rally.

His first shot attempt came on a beautiful seal of Isaiah Jackson, pinning down the Providence guard on the far block after De'Anthony Melton had drove into the top half of the lane drawing a defensive switch. Melton delivered the pass and then Rakocevic finished at the other side of the rim while getting fouled. On the Trojans' next trip down the floor, Rakocevic got the ball with his back to the basket in the post and showed some nimble footwork. He took a dribble, faked to his right, faked to his left, stepped through and finger rolled the ball into the net. 

The Trojans went back inside to Rakocevic once more on their next offensive possession. His shot attempt missed, but he drew extra attention and Metu was able to complete the tip in to cut the lead down to five for the first time in the second half.

Rakocevic finished with nine points on 3 of 6 shooting. He also grabbed one offensive rebound and had the steal that led to a transition jumper by Metu that gave USC its first lead of the second half.

"Our coaching staff at halftime just talking to us about being focused and just coming out more aggressive. I think that was all the motivation that I needed," Rakocevic said of the impetus for his strong second half. "I thought my teammates did a great job of just getting me the ball when I was open and I just made the easy shot."

Defense Shows the Way

In the first half, USC played a lazy zone defense that allowed Providence to get pretty much any shot it wanted...and the Friars took advantage, knocking down eight three-pointers while shooting 55.6 percent. Providence averaged 1.42 points per possession.

"They scored against our zone. They scored against our man. We weren't talking. We got discouraged," Andy Enfield said. "We missed a lot of easy shots and I thought it affected our energy on the defensive end. I think that's human nature at times."

At the half, Enfield and the Trojan coaching staff lit into the players.

"I'm not sure why we do it," Nick Rakocevic said of the Trojans falling behind. "I think it's just to give Coach a heart attack or something. I don't really know why we do it. Our mindset after being talked to by the coaches was just being more focused. Coming out and just knowing that we weren't playing hard enough the first half."

The Trojans came back out in the second half and were able to get back in the game because they locked in defensively and got stops. USC went to a man defense and switched all screens at the 1 through 4 positions. Suddenly, there was defensive communication and any shot that went up, on either end, was a Trojan rebound to take as USC out-rebounded the Friars, 21-9, after the break. 

"I thought they played harder than us in the second half," Ed Cooley said. "I thought they were tougher.I saw a totally different team in the second half than we had in the first half. And when we weren't scoring the ball I thought we got a little frustrated. Again credit USC; they did a really good job."

Providence was no longer getting wide open shots and struggled to make contested ones. The Friars managed just 27 points in the second half, averaging 0.87 points per possession. 

"We just got out-toughed in the second half," Providence guard Jalen Lindsey said. "We weren't playing with the same passion we were in the first half, and it showed."

Hey Ya!

Let's just let borrow some Outkast lyrics:

Alright now fellas (Yeah!)
Now what's cooler than being cool?
(Ice cold!) I can't hear ya
I say what's cooler than being cool?
(Ice cold!)

That was an apt description of the Trojans in the first half when they went the final 10 minutes missing 13 of 15 field goal attempts. The Trojans were colder than a polar bear's toenails leading USC fans to moan, "Oh hell, there they go again shooting like ****."

Providence was the exact opposite, ending the half making nine of 12 shots from the floor, pushing its lead up to as many as 17 with a 12-1 run that had been preceded by a 15-0 run. The Friars shot 55.6 percent in the first half, including knocking down eight of 15 three-point attempts while USC limped to a 34.5 percent mark. 

It was a bit of a strange twist after USC had started the game so well. Bennie Boatwright made four of his first five shots, scoring 10 points in the first four minutes. USC raced out to early 7-0 headstart leading Ed Cooley to call a timeout just 53 seconds into the game, attempting to get his players to wake up. It worked. The Friars chipped away at the Trojans' advantage until Providence went on its 15-0 tun to take a double digit lead.

Up Next

With the win, USC continues its NBA-style road trip, trading in one "O" state for another as it travels from Ohio to Oklahoma. The Trojans arrived in Tulsa last night and must now prepare to take on No. 6 seed SMU, who has gone 26-2 since USC beat the Mustangs, 78-73, at the Galen Center in November.

Highlights

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