Earlier this week, USC junior guard Elijah Stewart relayed that the coaching staff wanted him attack mode in the NCAA tournament.
"They said that they need me to be aggressive to win," Stewart said Monday. "I'm not trying to lose, so if they want me to go up and get them shots up, I can do that."
On Friday, Stewart hoisted up 15 shots, including a career-high 13 three-point attempts. He made both of his two-point field goals and six of his outside tries, including his last one that splashed through the net with 37 seconds remaining to put USC ahead by a point, a lead it would not relinquish to SMU in a 66-65 win despite a hectic final 30 seconds.
Stewart's game-winner was dished into the right corner by a driving Jordan McLaughlin, but it had been set up the previous time down the court.
A possession earlier, USC (26-9) had run the exact same play. McLaughlin ran a pick and roll with Chimezie Metu at the top of the key, drove right and tried to flip a back pass over his head to Metu diving toward the left side of the basket. SMU sniffed the play out and deflected the ball for a turnover.
"We noticed the corner three was open in the right," USC head coach Andy Enfield said. "So we ran the same play again and Jordan didn't hesitate. He threw a perfect strike to Elijah and he stepped up and made the perfect shot, biggest shot of his career."
"I was open, and I just let muscle memory take place," Stewart said. He elaborated later while talking to the media in the locker room:
Stewart's three-pointer gave him 22 points -- his first 20-point performance in nearly two months -- and put the Trojans ahead, but the drama was far from over.
SMU's Sterling Brown missed a jump shot near the elbow, but Stewart couldn't keep the Mustangs' tallest forward Ben Moore off the glass as they fought for positioning under the basket. Moore snagged the offensive rebound and was fouled as he quickly tried to put back the board. Moore headed to the line for a one-and-one free throw situation, but before the 62.7 percent shooter had a chance to try to even the game up, his own coach iced him.
Mustangs head coach Tim Jankovich called the referees over and asked them to review Stewart's shot to make sure he didn't have a toe on the line. After a review netted no chance, Moore stepped to the line and had his shot rim out. Metu grabbed his eighth rebound of the game and was fouled. Metu had a chance to put the Trojans up by three points with 11 seconds remaining. He had made all eight free throws he had attempted. He clanked the ninth.
SMU (30-5) had one final shot to win. Jankovich did not call a a timeout. He let his players go, but there was some confusion and possibly some disagreement about who would take the final shot. Shake Milton and Sterling Brown both wanted to be the hero.
"I noticed that two players were arguing about who was going to take the last shot," Stewart said. "Usually when something like that happens, whoever shoots it, it just messes with you."
Milton drove in from the right wing. He attempted a floater using just a little extra arc to get the shot over Metu's skyscraper appendages. It clipped the front of the rim and fell toward the floor with SMU's hopes for a tournament run as the final horn expired.
The floater was short. I felt like it could have went either way, honestly. I was just -- I had my eyes closed," Stewart said. "I looked [at the] last minute. I seen the rebound."
Stewart and the Trojans ran across half court where they jumped into the arms and celebrated with the rest of their teammates.
After being held scoreless for just the third time in the last two seasons during the win over Providence, Stewart's produced a team-high effort with his 22 points. Bennie Boatwright and Metu both shot 60 percent and scored 14 points.
Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye scored a game-high 24 points (8 of 20) to lead SMU and added 10 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season. Brown added 17 points on 7 of 12 shooting while Milton was just 4 for 12 with 11 points.
Just like against Providence, USC struggled shooting the ball in the first half, making 38.5 percent of their shots, including going a woeful 3 for 15 on three-pointers, but the Trojans came on in the second half. They made nine of their 11 two-point attempts and hit 38.5 percent of their threes.
Here's three takeaways from USC's 66-65 win over SMU in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday afternoon:
Right Where You Want Them
Last second theatrics didn't seem likely with 11:30 minutes left after a 13-3 run had put SMU back ahead by double digits. But that's right where the Trojans wanted them.
Once again, "double-digit deficit" became the code word for USC to start playing to its fullest potential, making shots on one end and getting stops on the other. USC's active zone defense held down the Mustang attack. SMU finished the game making just four of its final 13 field goal attempts. The Trojans made 10 of 14 to end the game.
Even though the Trojans had the momentum, making an 11-2 run to start the half carrying over from the final six seconds of the first half and an 11-1 run midway through, it didn't seem as if the Trojans would be able to get over the hump. Three times USC tied the game in the second half after being down as many as 12 points in the first half. All three times SMU answered. But the answers got more and more meek. First it was the 13-3 run, then a 6-2 burst and finally after USC tied it, 60-60, with 3:00 to go, it was just a Semi Ojeleye bucket.
Rather than letting SMU reel off a couple of buckets, Bennie Boatwright had the answer. No need to tie the game again, he rose up and drained a top-of-the-key 3-pointer off a dribble handoff. An offensive rebound on a free throw allowed Shake Milton to drain a rainmaker to put the Mustangs ahead one last time, but Elijah Stewart's corner three proved to be the silencer.
The Trojans rallied to win after trailing by double digits for the 13th time this season. Half of the team's 26 wins have been 10+ point comebacks. They've had another pair of wins where they at one point trailed by nine.
"Our players showed tonight," Andy Enfield said, "it doesn't matter who we play, we're going to get down and then we're going to come back, and hopefully we'll pull it out."
On Friday, USC trailed for 36 minutes. They never led by more than one point. Just another cardiac game for the Trojans, who set a school record with their 26th win this season.
Zone Lock Down
In the First Four round game, USC couldn't stop Providence with its zone defense. The Friars were getting whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, so in the second half, USC essentially scrapped it and only played man to man. Their aggressiveness on defense allowed them to rally from the 17-point deficit they faced.
Against SMU, it was the exact opposite. The Mustangs' unique five-tweener lineup gave USC trouble in its man-to-man defense. They were able to drive and kick and their wings had the height advantage to be able to shoot over USC's smaller defenders.
In the second half, USC went to its zone defense almost exclusively. It's typically hard to come from behind while sitting in a zone because of the inherent passivity of the defensive alignment, but the Trojans' zone was frantic particularly in the final 11 minutes when USC ratcheted up the intensity.
"We noticed we could probably defend them better in zone than man, so we stayed with it and it kept working," Andy Enfield said. "Just fortunate to find something that worked against a very good offensive team."
USC neutralized the middle where Semi Ojeleye had been having success and then nullified the short corner where the Mustangs were attacking the baseline. Down the stretch, SMU stopped taking threes because there seemed to always be a defender in the shooter's face. After hoisting 19 in the first 29 minutes of the game, the Mustangs attempted just four attempts in the last 11 and at least two of those were end-of-the-shot-clock heaves.
"They zoned. They just zoned," Tim Jankovich said. "They did a pretty good job, was very active and they've got great size.
"And today I thought it was the most active they've played it in any of the games that we watched. So give them credit for that."
The zone defense helped the Trojans hold SMU to 65 points, pushing USC's record to 13-0 when it holds its opponent under 70 points.
The Trojans entered the game with an impressive 15-1 record when they won or tied their opponent in total rebounds. Rebound the ball, win the game. It has been pretty simple for USC this season. When they rebound well, they get rather than give extra opportunities.
Against SMU, the Trojans had a height advantage with Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright having three inches on their defenders. Winning the board battle seemed elementay enough.
But outrebounding the Mustangs is no easy task. They entered the NCAA tournament third in the country in rebounding margin, averaging a nine-board advantage over their opponents. Though it has a smaller frontline with all five starters standing between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-8, SMU has four starters averaging at least 5.2 rebounds and the fifth, point guard Shake Milton, pulls in 4.1.
In the first half Friday afternoon, the American Athletic Conference champs controlled the glass. USC struggled to find men to box out when using their zone defense. Semi Ojeleye yanked down seven rebounds, including two on the offensive end. Ben Moore and Jarrey Foster also had multiple offensive rebounds. SMU scored 9 second-chance points and held a 19-14 rebounding advantage at halftime.
The second half was a different story. USC missed 10 field goals and three free throws in the second half. The Trojans grabbed nearly half of those misses, snatching six offensive rebounds. SMU managed just 10 rebounds in the half. USC had twice that and finished with a 34-30 advantage for the game.
With the win, USC finally gets to stay in the same town for more than two days. The Trojans kept their season alive and will remain in Tulsa, Okla. On Sunday, the Trojans get to try to keep their trek up the East seeding bracket, moving up from No. 6 SMU to No. 3 Baylor. The Bears won its first 15 games and moved all the way to No. 1 before dropping its first game. Baylor stayed in the top five while beginning the year 20-1. But the Bears have faltered down the stretch, losing six of their last 11 games before the NCAA tournament.
In their opening round game on Friday, Baylor fell behind in the first half of their matchup against No. 14 seed New Mexico State. The Aggies led 40-38 at halftime, but the Bears ran away with the game in the second half, scoring 53 points in the final 20 minutes as five players finished with double-digit points.
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