March 11, 2015 by Jacob Freedman
Rub your eyes, folks. You’re not dreaming. The 12th-place Trojans erased a 14-point deficit in the final eight and a half minutes against No. 5 seed Arizona State, stunning the Sun Devils 67-64 in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. The Trojans (12-19) live to see another day, and will play No. 4 seed UCLA tomorrow at 2:30 pm. They’re the first No. 12 seed to win in Pac-12 Tournament history. Here’s what you need to know from the upset.
All The Way Back
The Trojans looked lifeless midway through the second half, and trailing 60-49 with under six minutes left, it looked like the Trojans would trudge into the offseason. Then, Elijah Stewart happened. The freshman hit three-pointers a minute apart, quickly cutting the Trojans’ deficit to five.
Arizona State pushed it back to seven at 62-55, but the Trojans suddenly became possessed on offense. First, Nikola Jovanovic showed a newfound aggression and nailed both free throw shots after powering his way into the lane. Julian Jacobs leapt across the lane for a layup, while Jovanovic’s first field goal of the game came on a transition layup with 2:41 left, cutting it to 62-61.
From there, the Trojans’ defense kicked into gear. Layups by Darion Clark and Jacobs pushed USC ahead 65-62, while the Sun Devils missed eight straight shots before a Shaquielle McKissic layup cut USC’s lead to one with 56 seconds to go. After Jacobs missed a jumper, the Sun Devils missed three straight shots, with Elijah Stewart making a pair of free throws with 3.4 seconds to push it to 67-64. The Sun Devils’ buzzer heave clanged off the rim, and the stunning comeback was complete.
Overall, it was a 21-4 run from the Trojans to close out the win.
The Prophet, Elijah
The quiet freshman might not be able to be shy for long. Stewart had a career-high 27 points on 8-of-14 shooting, and went a sizzling 6-of-9 on three-pointers. The Trojans struggled in the first half, but Stewart had 13 of their 28 points in the half to keep things from getting out of hand. “He was the only guy who was consistent throughout the whole game,” Jovanovic said on his young teammates.
Head coach Andy Enfield also praised how far the freshman has come. “When we first went on the road trip to Colorado and Utah, Elijah had no clue about anything in the Pac-12. And he played it,” Enfield said. “We have never let those losses define who we are or where our program is going. Elijah Stewart and Julian Jacobs are much better players now than they were a month ago.
Other players also stepped up during the comeback, but without Stewart’s efforts in a career-high 37 minutes, the Trojans might have had too big a hole to climb out of.
Play Of The Year
Nikola Jovanovic had arguably his worst half of the season in the first 20 minutes, attempting just two shots with two fouls and three turnovers. He got an extended trip to the bench in the second half after picking up his fourth foul, but made the biggest play of the Trojans’ season with the game on the line.
With Arizona State down one, McKissic drove into the lane and had his eyes set on a game-winning layup off the class. Jovanovic had other ideas. McKissic released the ball low, and the 6-foot-10 Serbian punched the ball right back before it could gain any left. Stewart scooped it up with 3.4 seconds left, got fouled and hit both free throws, and the Sun Devils’ desperation heave didn’t fall.
“I just moved to the ball and I challenged the shot,” Jovanovic said. “It was a big-time block and I really saved my team.”
Good Defense…Or Bad Offense?
The Trojans hit clutch shots (six in a row on their 10-2 run, to be exact), but the Sun Devils’ scoring drought was the key ingredient to the comeback effort. Arizona State went 1-of-13 from the field in the game’s final nine minutes.
Part of it was the Sun Devils missing the open shots they were hitting earlier in the game, but large credit goes to USC’s suddenly ferocious defensive effort. Jovanovic played aggressive despite picking up his fourth foul with 7:46 left, Jacobs snagged seven rebounds and held opposing guard Tra Holder (six points on 2-of-7 shooting) in check, while the rest of the Trojans were more careful in defending, as USC committed only one foul in the final seven minutes. It takes a superb effort on both sides of the ball to chop down a 14-point deficit, and the 11th-best scoring defense in the Pac-12 chose the perfect time to elevate its performance.
Guess Who’s Next?
That’s right. If the Trojans are going to make a tournament run, they need to vanquish the crosstown UCLA Bruins. The Trojans were the better team in the second half against UCLA on March 4, and they’d like nothing better to deal a lethal blow to the Bruins’ NCAA hopes. “Being last in the pack, teams can’t really afford to lose to us,” Jacobs said. “We’re aware they’re (UCLA) on the bubble of making the tournament, and we’d love to stop them from making the tournament as well.” It’s been a long season for the Trojans, but ruining the Bruins’ postseason dreams would be about as good as it gets.