Once down by 10 points, USC basketball had followed the double-digit deficit comeback script precisely and were beginning to turn the tide.
In the midst of knocking down nine straight field goal attempts, the Trojans were asserting themselves halfway through the second half of their Round of 32 matchup. They retook the lead from Baylor and pushed it out to four points for the first time since the game’s opening moments.
Motley made a jumper and collected a steal. He got away with some incidental contact on a loose ball and then using his elbow to pin a defender behind him, he answered a USC basket with a layup on the other end. Motley was keeping the Bears right in it. But on the subsequent trip down the court, he tried to stop a Chimezie Metu dunk attempt and was called for his fourth foul with 8:16 remaining.
Drew couldn’t leave Motley in, but he was fearful of USC continuing to push the lead out further. He decided to go small with a four-guard lineup for the first time this season — a move that ultimately reversed Baylor’s fates and kept their season alive with an 82-78 win over the Trojans Sunday night in Tulsa, Okla.
Baylor has been an almost exclusive old-school, three-guard, two-big team this year. For the Bears, going small usually just means 6-foot-8 Terry Matson is on the floor at the “4” position. But rather than replacing the 6-foot-10 Motley with 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. as he normally would, Drew sent 5-foot-11 point guard Manu Lecomte back in to join a lineup that featured two guards at 6-foot-3 and another at 6-foot-5, leaving Maston as the only interior presence.
The teams traded 3-pointers and then Baylor scored four straight points to get the game even. The lead changed back and forth, but the Bears were biding their time until Motley could return. Every minute that chipped away with the score within one possession was a small victory for Baylor, but as is apt in March, something changed. An unexpected hero arrived.
The scoreless Lecomte — the Miami transfer who had missed his first six field goal attempts — got an opportunity from the top of the key. Over the next 46 seconds he would etch his name in Baylor basketball lore.
He drained the shot and was fouled by Elijah Stewart. He sank the free throw to complete the four-point play. He hit two more after stealing the ball and getting fouled. A USC miss was followed by a driving Lecomte layup for a solo 8-0 spurt. Lecomte had turned a two-point deficit into a six-point lead.
"I was struggling a little bit in the first half," Lecomte said, "so I just had to pick it up. My teammates and my coach kept believing in me. They trusted me with the ball in my hands, so I just had to go out there and make plays."
USC eventually cut the lead back to two points with 54 seconds left, but Baylor ran the shot clock down and Lecomte drove in and scored, finishing with all 12 of his points for the night during his magical stretch in the final 4:39.
"They went small with Motley out of the game, and they relied on some other people and they stepped up,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “Their point guard stepped up and scored down the stretch. When your leading scorer goes out, it's an opportunity for other players sometimes to score the ball, and that's what they did.”
Drew laughed when asked if he had used the small lineup previously this year.
“We were saving it.”
While Lecomte was the show pony in the final five minutes, Motley and Matson were the Baylor workhorses. The All-American Motley scored 19 points on 9 of 12 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds, including six on the offensive end, for his 15th double-double this season. Matson added 19 points and nine rebounds off the bench.
USC’s sophomore forward duo led the Trojans offensively. Metu had a game-high 28 points on 11-for-14 shooting. Bennie Boatwright scored the Trojans’ first eight points of the game and added eight more in the second half, making four 3-pointers to finish with 16 points. Juniors Jordan McLaughlin and Stewart added 11 and 12 points, respectively.
The Trojans were unable to overcome a third straight 10+ point deficit, but it wasn’t for lack of effort or because they couldn’t hit shots. USC finished with a 54.5 field goal percentage that included making 9 of 22 (41%) three-pointers. It shot 56.7 percent in the second half, but Baylor was even better, making 61.5 percent of its shots in the final 20 minutes.
Here's three takeaways from USC's 82-78 loss to Baylor in the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament on Sunday night:
Comeback Kids Can't Close it Out
Fifteen times this year, USC had looked up to the scoreboard and saw at least a nine-point deficit and said, ’No big deal.’ Half of the Trojans’ 26 wins featured them rallying from a double-digit deficit.
They did it once more on Sunday.
In the same pattern as their first two NCAA tournament wins, USC was red hot on the game’s initial possessions, began struggled a bit and fell behind in the first half. For nearly 10 minutes, Baylor held a lead that teetered between five and nine points. Everyone on Twitter patiently waited for the Bears to push their advantage to double digits, ready with a snarky comment about how the Trojans would then be ready to play.
And yet those tweets were all correct.
Baylor took a 36-26 lead on a Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. dunk with 2:08 to go in the first half. It didn’t score again for another four and a half minutes. Chimezie Metu scored the final five points of the first half. After a Bennie Boatwright 3-pointer to start the second half, Metu tied the game with a jumper.
Both teams battled back and forth throughout the second half. Baylor hit five shots in a row only to have USC knock down nine straight. The Bears added a stretch of making seven of nine. But neither team could pull away. Neither team led by more than four points until Manu Lecomte’s heroics and even then, the game never bumped past a six-point advantage. There were eight ties and seven lead changes, but USC couldn’t create either after Lecomte’s 8-0 run.
"When you have two teams that are as evenly matched as our teams were and are, I think there were some runs in this game," Andy Enfield said. "This wasn't one of those games where we were way behind. This was a game that was there for the taking if we would have executed down the stretch...It went right down to the last minute with a two-point game."
"Unfortunately, we came out on the wrong end today."
Surprise Step Ups
In Baylor’s win over No. 14 seed New Mexico State in the first round Friday, Manu Lecomte only made one field goal until the final 81 seconds when he added a couple of buckets in the garbage time of an 18-point victory. He finished with 10 points on 3 of 9 shooting, but maybe it was foreshadowing that his first field goal put Baylor ahead for good.
On Sunday, it was the same thing. Lecomte’s four-point play put the Bears ahead and they never trailed again thanks to the Belgium native’s personal 8-0 run.
Lecomte finished with 12 points, all coming in the final five minutes of the game. He isn’t Baylor’s star, but he stepped up when their star was out. It’s the type of thing that allows a team to go on a run.
“When Motley went out someone else had to step up, and he sure did,” Enfield said.
Your stars can’t carry you at every moment. Other players have to step up. It was similar to Nick Rakocevic adding the energy and big buckets during the Trojans’ comeback against Providence and the breakout outing of Elijah Stewart in the SMU victory.
Baylor sophomore guard King McClure did the same thing against USC. He scored 17 points, including making five 3-pointers, after not scoring and only playing six minutes in the Bears’ first round win..
Forwards Final Hurrah?
USC sophomore forwards Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright did the heavy lifting carrying the Trojans against Baylor. Metu scored 28 points on 11-for-14 shooting while Boatwright hit four threes and finished with 16 points. But now the question becomes will they return for their junior seasons or was that their final hurrah in the cardinal and gold. READ MORE
USC's season is over.
The Trojans set a school record with 26 wins, finishing 26-10 with two NCAA tournament victories.
The question now becomes who will be on the roster next season. Last year, USC expected to return its entire roster only to lose six players to transfers and the NBA draft. Who will remain when the Trojans open camp next season?
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