Rather than recording their first NCAA tournament win since 2009, the Trojans will instead exit March Madness early after falling in heartbreaking fashion in the first round to the Providence Friars 70-69 on Thursday night in Raleigh.
With the Trojans ahead by one with three seconds remaining, USC left Providence sophomore forward Rodney Bullock open at the basket off an inbounds play and Bullock made a layup to win the game for the Friars.
Up by five with 2:41 remaining, the Trojans committed several late mistakes prior to the defensive lapse that cost them the game. Consecutive turnovers led to a dunk and a 3-pointer by Providence that tied the game at 68-68. Missed free throws by freshman forward Bennie Boatwright, sophomore guard Elijah Stewart and junior guard Julian Jacobs allowed the Friars to make the late comeback.
Jacobs was fouled after a couple of key blocks by Stewart and freshman forward Chimezie Metu that gave USC possession with 15 seconds to play. But Jacobs missed the front-end of a one-and-one, allowing Providence to take the final shot of the game.
Four Trojans finished in double figures, with McLaughlin’s 15 points leading the way. Junior forward Nikola Jovanovic added 14 points. The Friars were paced by 19 points from sophomore forward Ben Bentil. Bullock and junior guard Kris Dunn both had 16.
There were times in the first half when it seemed like Providence might pull away and open up a large lead, but the Trojans clamped down on defense when they needed to, holding the Friars without a field goal for over a five-minute stretch, allowing them to hang in the game.
After trailing for much of the half, sophomore guard Malik Marquetti tied it at 33-33 with a jumper and a late 3-pointer by junior guard Katin Reinhardt put the Trojans in front.USC led 36-35 at halftime.
The second half started with the teams trading baskets and the lead. The Trojans managed to pull ahead 60-53 on a reverse dunk by Jacobs, only to have Providence respond with an 8-0 run capped off with a 3-pointer by Dunn to take a 61-60 advantage with under six minutes to play.
But the Trojans answered after a timeout as McLaughlin made a tough floater and Boatwright followed with a jumper to give USC a 64-61 lead. The Trojans were seemingly in control – even drawing a crucial fourth foul on Dunn, Providence’s second-leading scorer – until the very end, when their inexperience and youth got the best of them, allowing a historic and potentially program-defining victory to slip away.