The clock was running. On USC's season. And on Andy Enfield's ability to take this team -- or maybe the two USC teams he's dealing with -- to the next level, a place where last year's Trojans couldn't go.
With 20 minutes left, even less than that after the start of the second half and Providence up by 17 points, this did not look good for a fearful, timid, walk-it-up Trojan team playing with little confidence and less toughness against a decent, disciplined half-court Providence bunch.
And then that Trojan team exited the UD Arena and the next USC team, the one with a dozen double-digit come-from-behind wins took over. One look at the scoreboard would have made it clear USC could not beat Providence at its own game, the game that they'd been playing for 21 minutes, the one that''s not USC's game, so they switched.
Getting down by 17 tends to focus the mind on where you are and what you have to do -- especially against a less-talented team. Get them out in the open court where the edge goes to the long-armed team that can run and jump and get to the glass and shoot the transition three and it was Trojans game.
The team that had slow-walked to 29 first-half points ran off 47 in the final 19 minutes. And a team that gave up 44 in the first half allowed just 27 in the second by playing man and helping, overplaying, deflecting, hustling, bodying-up and just playing hard -- and fast on both ends.
They were also having fun. Playing their game. Not trying to counter Providence's. Funny how that works.
And they even came up with a new wrinkle -- three bigs which freed 6-foot-11 Chimezie Metu to be the athletic mismatch Chimezie he should be inside, and freed 6-10 Bennie Boatwright to be the big body mismatch with guard skills he hopes to be and then freed 6-11 freshman Nick Racocevic to be . . . well, we're not sure who that confident, competitive banger who always seemed to be in the right place was exactly, but that No. 31 in the USC jersey was the final mismatch for the slightly undersized Friars.
And to be honest, we're not completely sure who this USC team is although we see these glimpses of who it might be -- from mismatched to a major mismatch because of its talent, athleticism and depth.
We'll know more early Friday (12:10, tru TV) when they hit the floor in Tulsa. Because they'll probably not be given 21 minutes to make up their minds as to who they want to be against another smart, disciplined but much more talented Mustang team that USC beat 76-73 at Galen in December in what might have been the wakeup call for SMU which has gone 27-2 since then.
USC fans have to hope that Wednesday was USC's moment of realization. Start out like you're double-digits behind when all you have to do is play all out, play defense like it's the start of your offense and just play your game and make SMU adjust. Most teams cannot. Because most teams don't have USC's full-court personnel and mismatch opportunities.
The problem is, of course, that if they get into a push-and-shove, half-court position game of slow-moving grind-it-out basketball, USC is the team with a mismatch problem although Racovecic helps a bit there when he's playing like he did Wednesday, which until Wednesday, was never.
But the change was more than cosmetic or stylistic. "They out-toughed us," the guys from the tough Big East said. They "played harder," said PC Coach Ed Cooley.
Which just goes to show you that playing smart and fast and flying around can be just as much a tough-man's game as pushing people around. USC can't do that push part all that well. But it can do a lot of things that other teams cannot match up against. If only USC will.
The game plan that worked in the second half Wednesday would have worked in the first half. If only USC would have had the . . . courage . . . the smarts . . . the good luck . . . the desperation -- to go with it.
Now it's time for USC to do it not out of necessity but because this is who they are and how they play. Fly around. Have fun. Trust yourself. Trust your teammate.
Play like there's no tomorrow. Because there is, literally, no tomorrow.
Play like you expect to be there Sunday fighting for a trip to the Sweet 16. Because that's what will set this team apart. And send the message that this is a program on the way to someplace special. Because it''s in a place and at a school where it's possible to have the players who can do that.
Be the team that wins this game -- and the next game -- that people look back on i future years and say, yeah, that was the moment. That's when you knew this program could take that next step up.
But it's not going to happen coming from 17 down again. Not against SMU. Not against whoever is there Sunday.
It's going to happen because Andy Enfield chooses for it to happen and makes the call for it to happen and turns the Trojans loose to make sure it happens.
And encourages point guard Jordan McLaughlin to make this his team with the charge to go out and make things happen. No walking it up the court. No standing around. No hesitation.
Just go for it. It's been a while since USC basketball has been in this position.
Two of Tim Floyd's last three Trojans teams almost got there. The 2007 team that won 25, like this team, ran out of bodies after beating Kevin Durant's Texas team the next game against North Carolina in the Sweet 16 when they fouled out Taj Gibson. Two years later USC didn't quite have enough in the second round against NCAA runnerup Michigan State. And then we all know what happened starting in 2010.
And now USC has another shot to get it going. If only it will. The numbers are there. The talent is there. But the will must be.
If this team plays its game and does whatever it takes and whatever it can to speed the game up, If USC comes off the floor with SMU players saying they were "out-toughed" or that USC "played harder," Trojans win in what could be one more "Mismatch USC,"
But it will not be easy. It never is. USC basketball knows that better than anyone.