The ball finally bounced the Trojans’ way. After USC blew the entirety of its 15-point lead in the second half, junior forward Ari Stewart made two clutch free throws with 11.4 seconds left to put the Trojans up 74-71 in overtime. Following a missed 3-pointer by UCLA’s swingman Shabazz Muhammad, a free throw from senior point guard Jio Fontan sealed the stunning 75-71 upset in Westwood.
After losing an overtime heartbreaker against Arizona State on Thursday, the Trojans barely made it into overtime after UCLA’s Larry Drew II missed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of regulation buzzer to send the game into the extra period tied at 65. The Trojans went back and forth with the Bruins in the extra period before sophomore guard Byron Wesley hit an arcing bank shot in the lane to put USC up 72-71 with 1:36 left.
Muhammad missed a 3-pointer on the next possession, and USC corralled the rebound with 19 seconds left. Senior forward Eric Wise missed a running shot in the lane, but got his own rebound, dished the ball out to Stewart, who was fouled and sent to the line. The Bruins could not muster another point.
“When we needed a basket, we got it,” USC coach Bob Cantu said. “When we needed to get the ball in-bounds, we did. They [USC’s players] hung in there and they made it when it counted.”
The Trojans improve to 9-13 on the year, with a 4-5 record in Pac-12 play. Fontan and senior forward Aaron Fuller led the Trojans with a season-high 15 points, with Fuller shooting 6-of-7 from the field while coming of the bench. Wise had 12 points and 11 rebounds for USC, while junior shooting guard J.T. Terrell and Wesley each finished in double digits with 10 points.
USC led the entire second half, but UCLA slowly chipped away at the lead after USC took a 52-37 lead with 13:25 left. The Bruins got USC’s top players into foul trouble in the second half, as senior point guard Jio Fontan and Wise played with four fouls down the stretch. UCLA outscored USC 9-2 in the final 4:26, as Muhammad scored 15 points in the second half after shooting just 1-for-5 with 5 points in the first half. Despite the foul trouble, Fontan finished with one of his best games of the season by notching 6 assists and maintaining the Trojans’ focus in the extra five minutes.
“He didn’t allow himself to get rattled as a point guard and as a leader,” Cantu said about his floor general. “Jio Fontan is a very good player, and he showed it in a big time environment tonight.”
Though both were questionable to play because of various ailments, Muhammad (flu) scored 22 points to lead all scorers while forward Travis Wear (concussion) was the Bruins’ other main offensive threat with 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting. USC outshot UCLA 47.7 percent to 38.2 percent, with the Bruins shooting just 33.3 percent in the opening half.
The Trojans struck first with a 3 from Terrell to take an early 5-1 lead. But UCLA’s length and aggressiveness turned into four easy transition points as the Bruins went on an 8-0 run to take a 9-5 lead. USC was able to contest almost every Bruin shot attempt on defense and, thanks to some deft passing, found itself tied again at 13 with 11:56 left in the half.
The Trojans worked the Bruins down low to find easy baskets for Fuller and Wise and, after a 17-4 run, found themselves up 32-25 with 4:23 remaining in the first half. Following a reverse bank shot by senior center James Blasczyk, the stunned crowd at Pauley saw their team down double-digits, as USC took a 38-27 lead with 2:07 left in the first half. The Bruins were able to cut the deficit to 38-30 at halftime, but the Trojans ended the half on a 23-9 scoring run. USC shot 50 percent in the first half while holding the Bruins to just 33.3 percent on 11-of-33 shooting. After not playing more than 16 minutes in a game under Cantu, Fuller exceeded his season high in the first half alone, throwing down 13 points on 5-5 shooting to go along with some key rebounds down the stretch.
“You try to leave it all on the court,” Fuller said. “I made (rebounding) my top priority to be on the glass offensive and defensively, and I thought it all jelled tonight.”
Junior forward Dewayne Dedmon opened the second half with an alley-oop from Wise, and, two minutes later, a thunderous Terrell slam reduced the noise in Pauley to crickets as USC took a 44-31 lead. The Trojans extended the lead to 15 at 52-37 on a Fontan jumper a few minutes later before the Bruins began chipping away at the lead.
The Trojans have endured tough losses down the stretch in the past two weeks against Arizona State and Oregon but plan to grow through adversity.
“Playing the top four teams, we’ve realized that we can play along with them,” Fontan said. “Despite the loss we had at Arizona, the other ones we were in the game so we just have to do a better job of closing out games and learning from this so we can grow.”