Cal (11-5, 2-2) visited the Galen Center on Sunday to take on the Trojans (15-2, 2-2), and the Pac-12 clash lived up to the pre-game hype. Forty minutes of tightly contested basketball kept getting better and better, as both teams got hot from beyond the arc and traded scores tit-for-tat until the very end.
Although USC had the final possession, Cal had the last laugh, leaving Los Angeles with its first road win, 74-73, versus an AP Top-25 team since November 2014.
“It was a great college basketball game. Both teams played extremely hard,” head coach Andy Enfield said after the game.
With 5.2 seconds left and the Trojans down by one, Enfield called a timeout. He drew up a play for junior guard Jordan McLaughlin to take the ball all the way upcourt.
The captain did just that, dribbling behind the back and splitting a double team to extend his drive past half-court. McLaughlin made it all the way under the basketball, but three Bears suddenly pounced on him, and Ivan Rabb got a clean block from behind. While Cal’s Jabari Bird’s jump made contact in front of McLaughlin, the referees deemed that he jumped straight up and didn’t blow the whistle. USC had dropped its first home game of the 2016-17 season.
Final play aside, the Trojans lost Sunday’s game at the free-throw line, where they went a measly 10-of-21. McLaughlin, a 89 percent shooter at the stripe this season, sank 3 of 8 — including two misses with 45.3 seconds to play and the Trojans down by one.
After he missed both free throws, the game looked over for the Trojans. However, junior guard Elijah Stewart stole the ball in Cal’s backcourt to set up another Trojan possession. McLaughlin attacked the rim, but Bird denied him, swatting the ball out of bounds.
McLaughlin inbounded the ball to sophomore forward Chimezie Metu, who slipped but recovered in time to hand the ball back to the point guard for a lay-up on the far side of the bucket. The Trojans led by one with 14.1 seconds to play.
Rabb, Cal’s AP Preseason All-American, had been double-teamed all night by a host of Trojans, but on the Bears’ final possession, he was alone with Metu. The towering sophomore fouled Rabb with 5.2 seconds to play, and the Cal star drilled both free throws — the game’s final points.
Rabb finished 6-of-10 from the floor with 17 points and eight rebounds. He had picked up his fourth foul with over six minutes to play, but he played smart in the final minutes.
Despite the loss, the Trojans can take away many positives from the game. Metu, to his credit, matched Rabb throughout the game.
“I knew it was going to be a battle coming in. I was just going to play a good 40 minutes,” Metu said about guarding the Bears’ power forward.
Metu shot 9-of-15 from the floor, including a run of five consecutive makes. He dominated Cal’s seven-footer Kameron Rooks, who was playing his second game back from a knee surgery. Credit is also due to freshman forward Nick Rakocevic, who played 24 minutes, mostly without foul trouble. Rakocevic eventually drew four fouls after picking up two in the span of 30 seconds, but he held his own against Cal’s physical front court.
For grad transfer Charles Buggs, the frustration continued. USC’s sixth man picked up three fouls in quick succession, forcing Metu to stay on the court for 38 minutes. The Trojans sorely miss sophomore co-captain Benny Boatwright’s 6-foot-10 frame, to say the least.
Meanwhile, Boatwright’s replacement starter, freshman DeAnthony Melton, continued to shine with his extra playing time. Melton logged his best game of the season, contributing 13 points, a team-high seven rebounds, four assists, two blocks and three steals over 34 minutes. A reticent shooter this season, Melton looked comfortable on Sunday, going 4-of-9 with a pair of 3-pointers. As a team, USC shot 7-of-12 from downtown.
The Trojans face a tough road trip next week in the altitude against Utah and Colorado.