March 17, 2016 by evanbud365
RALEIGH, N.C. – The USC Trojans had plenty of chances to win their first NCAA Tournament game since 2011, but the upstart squad only has themselves to blame in a heart wrenching, frustrating and somewhat disappointing 70-69 loss to the Providence Friars on Thursday night at PNC Arena.
“Honestly, it feels really tough,” said junior forward Nikola Jovanovic.
Despite missing three free throws in the closing minute, including the front end of a one-and-one, the Trojans led by one, 69-68, with three seconds to play. The ensuing play was not the main option drawn up either, as Rodney Bullock (16 points) escaped the mad chaos of players for a tough layup in the final seconds for what ended up being a wild game-winning shot off an inbounds play.
Julian Jacobs heaved one last attempt across mid court but to no avail, as the Trojans effectively tried every conceivable way possible to fold the game away.
“It’s one of those things where they made a great play and we made a mistake,” said head coach Andy Enfield, who sensed the magnitude of his teams’ loss while also maintaining his pride in a valiant turnaround season for USC Basketball.
Not to discredit the team-high 15 points from Jordan McLaughlin or the 53-percent shooting from the field on the night, but the closing minutes were essentially agonizing to watch as the Trojans were unable to execute on either end of the floor.
Making matters worse for the time being, the Trojans were playing excellent defense all throughout the night, mixing and matching zone looks at Kris Dunn and the Providence Friars attack, limiting PC to just 37-percent shooting in the second half, snatching their largest lead of the game (7 points) with 7:38 left to play in the game.
In a game that featured 13 lead changes, with no squad leading by more than seven points on the night, the USC Trojans looked unfazed by the stage of the event.
That was until the final two minutes where the entire night of good shot selection, balanced scoring and tenacious rebounding went away. Shifting farther back in time, Jordan McLaughlin missed a layup with 39 seconds left as the Trojans led by one.
The Trojans even blocked two shots on the other end of the court, winning possession of the ball with 15 seconds left after a replay of the block ruled that Elijah Stewart deflected off the body of Providence. Despite that valiant effort, USC missed three of its final four free throws, ending the game shooting a dismal 53-percent (7-13) from the charity stripe.
Despite shooting just 38-percent from the field, featuring a 5-minute FG scoring drought in the second half, Providence stayed in the game with a 16-2 scoring advantage from points off turnovers. Both the Friars and Trojans battled foul trouble all night, as Kris Dunn picked up his fourth foul in crunch time.
At that moment Providence responded, sparking a quick 8-0 run that stole the lead away from the Trojans, 61-60, with just over 5:00 minutes left. The Trojans fought back every time, posting four players in double figures as McLaughlin (15), Jovanovic (14), Boatwright (11) and Stewart (10) paced the balanced scoring night.
“They (USC) played great basketball for a majority of the game,” said Enfield, before adding the caveat, “But its heartbreaking for them to lose a basketball game like this. I’m sure they will be thinking about this (final stretch) for the entire offseason.”
PNC Arena was honestly a skeleton of itself from what took place right before hand when North Carolina overcame a difficult first half to blow out Florida Gulf Coast in front of a raucous environment. But when it came time for USC to take the floor, they looked ready, scoring the first four points in the opening minute.
In fact, the Trojans made six of their first nine shots from the field.
When both teams sprinted to the locker room at halftime, the game lacked a certain edge that comes from March Madness, yet the young Trojans played balanced, composed basketball for a 36-35 lead at the break.
That changed in a hurry by the time the second half got started.
Foul trouble crippled both teams early in the game, forcing head coach Andy Enfield to empty his bench – bringing five players off the bench as both Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright picked up two fouls early in the first half.
Julian Jacobs picked up the pieces out of the break, providing three highlight dunks in the second half as part of an 8-point, 4-rebound, 3-assist night. Unfortunately for the Trojans, the end goal of winning was left short from the line.
“I’m (still) very proud of our players. I give our staff and players all the credit.” said Enfield.
The real question is whether one difficult loss can spoil on otherwise upbeat season, featuring the biggest W/L record turnaround (8.5 games) in Power-5 Basketball?
In the grand scheme of things, USC will be just fine moving forward. But their inability to get over the hump, mostly in the free throw department, will make any controversy or early struggle in the start of 2016-17 all the more noteworthy.
Every player that took the court (and played) tonight will likely return, which means expectations of a Pac-12 title are not that farfetched. This for a team that finished 12th in the Pac-12 conference in two of the last three years – we might add.
All that being said, watching the closing seconds tick off the clock (in a game USC could’ve, should’ve, you get the point…won) at PNC Arena makes you wonder what the real missing ingredient is for USC Basketball.