March 13, 2018 by Sam Dodge
LOS ANGELES – You can certainly be cynical about tonight’s game.
Yes, USC outlasted UNCA 70-66 in overtime to take the NIT first round Tuesday night. The fight to be the No. 69 team in the country is alive and well!
We’re not here to be cynical. One player wouldn’t allow it.
Jordan McLaughlin was a pitbull refusing to let go of his college career. Tonight showed the duality of this team in plain sight. Chimezie Metu protected himself for his NBA future, and McLaughlin pushed through an apathetic situation.
Jordan McLaughlin scored 12 first half points, including nine of the first 10, leading by example. Elijah Stewart joined his senior counterpart, bringing the effort all night on both ends.
The former finished with 26 points and 13 assists for the double-double. The latter chipped in 22 more, slashing for dunks and canning threes. He even forced a 10-second violation in the third quarter. You don’t force 10-second violations if you don’t care.
“Our defense was average,” Enfield said, “but our seniors were not.”
By the way, yes, the NIT split the game into four 10-minute quarters. It’s always been a weird tournament.
Their efforts coupled with those of Nick Rakocevic swatted away several UNCA second half runs at the lead. McLaughlin drained a step-back three to put the Trojans up 64-60 with under six minutes left.
After the Bulldogs tied it, Rakocevic – one of the best offensive rebounders in the country – snagged one and put it back to break another tie a minute later. He notched his own double-double with 24 points and 19 boards.
Rakocevic and McLaughlin hit two free throws apiece to tie the game once more to send it to overtime. The Bulldogs, who hit 45 percent on threes, drained three to seize the early overtime lead 79-74.
McLaughlin answered again, finding Jonah Matthews for a three and then tying the game with a runner.
“That daggone McLaughlin,” UNCA head coach Nicholas McDevitt said, “that floater almost hit the rafters.”
Nowhere was this more obvious than the end of the both overtimes. In the first, he connected on a cold-blooded three to tie it at 85. With less than a minute in the next frame, he crossed over UNCA’s MaCio Teague and hit a 18-foot jumper to snag a one-point lead.
It’s not over ’til @itsmclaughlin11 says it’s over.
— USC Men’s Basketball (@USC_Hoops) March 14, 2018
— USC Men’s Basketball (@USC_Hoops) March 14, 2018
Defensive stops and free throws finally sent UNCA packing.
“We’re in this thing,” McLaughlin said, “so we might as well win it.”
One identity of this team has been pushing through an ever-changing set of obstacles. From the Melton situation to the various injuries, senior leaders McLaughlin and Stewart did yeoman’s work pushing their teammates towards second-place in the conference.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to see Metu on the bench and not think of why the team lacked consistency. The best (eligible) player never showed it himself.
After the Washington game, Andy Enfield, otherwise fairly cagey this year, openly called out his junior forward.
“Chimezie has to stop only practicing his jumpshot,” he said, “and work on the other side of the court. Tonight was all about inconsistent effort.”
The next game against Washington State featured enhanced effort, but dong punches. Most big men, until two late strong efforts against UCLA’s Thomas Welsh and Oregon State’s Tres Tinkle, established themselves against him. He’s undeniably fun to watch – hell, I just wrote about savoring his highlight-making plays like weekend – but the image of him in street clothes will linger.
“He made a personal decision,” Enfield said, “to avoid injury for the NBA. He deserves to make his own decision. He’s a smart guy. 3.1 GPA.”
An appreciative crowd for the rest of the team’s efforts drowned out that noise. While maybe a few hundred fans scattered around Galen Center, they worked with the band – and no DJ – to show their love. This is where I get a little personal.
I grew up a Michigan fan in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. This was right in the middle of a rough time for a once-proud program. The Brian Ellerbe years tanked, which led to the mediocre Tommy Amaker years. It was an era defined by frequent NIT appearances.
I was a little fan in the stands during all of it. I saw the fair-weather ones leave, only to return once Michigan went to the Final Four in 2013. I will never forget the ones that stuck it through.
To the few hundred in attendance, I promise you: good things come to the patient. Your support tonight, genuinely louder than many conference games, did not go unnoticed.
The fact this UNCA team was the No. 195 efficiency team on Ken Pomeroy going into tonight is beyond the point. A sluggish performance is understandable given the NCAA tournament snub.
The opponent, the situation and the season in general make tonight’s loss understandable. Instead of internalizing the loss…
Think of McLaughlin. He fought all year in a thankless situation.
USC plays Western Kentucky Monday night at 8:30 P.M PDT in the NIT second round.