At this time last week, USC wasn’t even sure if it had done enough to make the NCAA tournament.
Now the Trojans are headed to the second round for the first time in eight years.
Still trailing sixth-seeded SMU by two points with less than a minute to go in the game, USC point guard Jordan McLaughlin penetrated the lane and found Elijah Stewart spotted up in the corner. Stewart’s corner 3-pointer proved to be the decisive blow in the 11th-seeded Trojans’ surprising 66-65 upset victory.
Storming back from a double-digit second-half deficit was nothing new for USC. The Trojans used the same formula to rally past Providence in their First Four matchup in Dayton on Wednesday night.
Whatever happens to USC against third-seeded Baylor on Sunday, making the second round of the NCAA tournament is a major accomplishment considering all the talent that left the program after last year’s breakthrough NCAA tournament season. Six upperclassmen bolted with eligibility remaining, most notably standouts Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic, who turned pro, and fellow starter Katin Reinhardt, who transferred.
With only two returning starters and no seniors in its rotation, USC has managed to finish in the upper half of the Pac-12 and advance farther in the NCAA tournament than last year’s team did. The Trojans owe that to the development of junior guards Stewart and McLaughlin and sophomore big men Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu.
Beating SMU for a second time this season might be the most impressive achievement of all for USC. This is a Mustangs team that won 30 games, swept the American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles and boasted one of the nation’s best players in former Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye.
Behind by as many as 10 points midway through the second half on Friday, USC mounted a comeback fueled by coach Andy Enfield’s decision to switch to zone from man-to-man. An SMU team that boasts the 10th-most efficient offense in the country scored only 12 points over the final 11 minutes of the game, giving USC time to rally.
Boatwright, Metu and McLaughlin each had key baskets during USC’s final charge, but it was Stewart whose 22 points did the most damage. His corner 3-pointer was the game’s biggest shot, but the Trojans had to make a defensive stand to make it stand up.
SMU let two chances to win the game in the final seconds slip through its fingers. Ben Moore missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 14 seconds left. Then after a missed foul shot from Metu left the door wide open, Shake Milton could not convert a contested layup at the buzzer.
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