Trojans’ comeback attempt falls short

Turnover, turnover, followed by six straight misses.

That’s how the USC men’s basketball team began Sunday night’s home matchup against No. 25 San Diego State, a game that ended in a 66-60 defeat for the Trojans.

Added boost · Junior forward Ari Stewart came off the bench and nailed three of five 3-point attempts to cut into San Diego State’s lead. – Corey Marquetti | Daily Trojan

USC got off to an abysmal start, trailing 18-5 midway through the first half. That gap eventually reached 19 points at 29-10 before USC went on a 13-6 run to make it 35-23 going into the halftime break.

“The biggest thing is the way we came out of the gate,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said. “We can’t be down 19 in the first half at home and really expect to fight hard enough to get back into it.”

The Trojans shot just 8-31 (26 percent) from the floor in the first half. USC missed its first six 3-point attempts and was outrebounded by six early on even with a major height advantage.

“We’ve got to start converting, shooting the ball better,” O’Neill said. “I liked our shot selection for the most part.”

But the Trojans did fight back in the second half, going on an 11-2 run to cut SDSU’s advantage to 37-34. From there, the two teams exchanged baskets back and forth, with USC even taking the lead 41-39 with 13:32 remaining.

“How we came out in the second half is how we’ve got to start the game,” junior forward Dewayne Dedmon said.

Critical mental mistakes down the stretch, however, doomed the USC comeback. With 2:18 remaining and the Trojans down 56-55, junior center Omar Oraby was called for a technical foul for making contact with Aztec guard Jamaal Franklin after the whistle blew. The score quickly ballooned to 61-55, an unreachable deficit with so little time remaining. In the closing moments, sophomore guard Byron Wesley committed an intentional foul in an apparent fit of anger.

“We’ve got a bunch of new guys,” O’Neill said. “We did all the right things down the stretch against Texas in a tight game. In this situation, the immaturity of the emotional stuff — you can’t overcome that in a tight game against a good team. It’s not acceptable, it’s not professional, it’s not winning basketball.”

Senior point guard Jio Fontan was quick to shoulder some of the blame for failing to keep the rest of the team composed down the stretch.

“It’s me and K.O.,” Fontan said. “Got a lot more to do with me than K.O. because I’m on the court, and I’ve got to do a better job of controlling the guys on the court and being in control myself.”

Senior forward Eric Wise led the Trojans in scoring for the fourth time in six games, putting up 14 points and seven rebounds in the loss, which dropped USC to 3-3 on the season. O’Neill was highly complimentary of Wise’s play following the game.

“He’s a heck of a player,” O’Neill said. “He does it all — scores, rebounds, assists, playmaker, [is a] smart player. Got a chance to have a really good year in his senior season. He’s a guy that is probably our No. 2 playmaker behind Jio. That’s why he’s so valuable to us.”

USC’s backcourt, on the other hand, struggled to shoot the ball again as Fontan, Wesley and junior guard J.T. Terrell combined to shoot just 6-29 for the game.

“We’re not making shots,” O’Neill said. “Our three perimeter guys shot 6-29 again. It’s tough to win with that number. I liked their shots — they’ve got to keep being aggressive, keep shooting and attacking the basket, doing the things that will help us win.”

The Trojans do have a few positives to take from the game, as they recovered in the rebounding department to finish with 43 boards compared to 36 for the Aztecs. And though NBA prospect and junior guard Jamaal Franklin finished with 17 points — tied with senior guard James Rahon’s 17 for the team high — he did so on an inefficient 4-of-15 shooting.

“It was a great basketball game, both teams played hard and played well,” O’Neill added. “Unfortunately, we gave into some things at the end that don’t make sense in a tight game like that, you just can’t do it.”