As the final seconds of the NCAA tournament’s first round ticked off the clock in the Bok Center, the Trojans carved out a new title for themselves.
They had already proved themselves against a torrent of late-season doubt by punching a ticket to the First Four play-in round of the NCAA tourney. Then the Trojans erased a 17-point deficit to narrowly push out Providence in a rematch of last year’s tournament opener, earning a spot in the first official round of the tournament.
A matchup against SMU, however, was a completely different matter. The Trojans were an 11-seed attempting to knock down a 5-seed — a team they’d defeated much earlier in the season, before the Mustangs hit a hot streak that hadn’t slowed down. They faced a deficit that stretched as far as 11 points and a battery of deep 3-pointers and highlight-reel dunks.
But key defensive stretches and late shots from deep gave USC the fuel it needed to fight back back to a 66-65 upset. The Trojans will keep dancing this year, moving onto the Round of 32.
The first half was marred by cold shooting from the arc for the Trojans. After stumbling to 0-for-4 from behind the line, the only life for the USC offense was found in the lane, with sophomore forward Chimezie Metu pounding the Mustangs down low.
Both teams set into an up-and-down flow as the half continued — the Mustangs neared a double-digit lead, then the Trojans responded with a quick series of offensive attacks to even the score back up. Critical in this offensive tide was junior guard Elijah Stewart, who knocked down back-to-back threes to cut a double-digit lead in the final five minutes of the half.
At the half, the Trojans entered their locker room with an 8-point deficit. But after clawing back against Providence, the team remained comfortable in their position. In fact, USC has shown a pattern of performing best in comeback situations, with second-half spurts that typically lift the team to a victory.
“We said at halftime, we were only down by 8, this is nothing,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “We felt really great at the half.”
Following Enfield’s lead, the Trojans sparked the second half with confidence, with sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright and Stewart sinking a pair of 3-pointers. Metu followed to slam in a dunk, giving the Trojans the first of many ties in the second half.
The dunk began the same back-and-forth rhythm, but the Trojans remained relentless in keeping pace with the Mustangs. But despite forcing a tie game multiple times, by the final 10 minutes of the game, the Trojans trailed by 6 and had yet to lead.
The final spark came not from one player, but from the entire team. Boatwright and freshman guard Jonah Mathews sliced into the SMU paint for layups, and Stewart threw down a dunk to the tie the game. SMU reclaimed their lead with a layup and an and-one, but layups from junior guard Jordan McLaughlin and Melton held the Mustang lead to 1 point.
An unsung key to the victory was performance from the free-throw line, especially from Metu, who sank eight throughout the game. Consistency from the line helped to level out the Trojans’ struggling shooting in other areas, especially from behind the 3-point line. Despite Stewart’s hot night from behind the line — the guard finished with six 3-pointers and 22 points — the Trojans struggled to knock down threes, shooting only 8-28 from behind the line.
But despite their struggles from behind the line, the Trojans nailed long shots when they counted.
With 1:47 left, Boatwright delivered the first lead of the game in showman’s style, dropping a long 3-pointer over a defender to push the score to 63-62. The USC fan section exploded, but the Mustangs were quick to respond with a 3 of their own.
Yet again, it came down to the wire, to the final minute of the game. Mathews found Stewart deep in the corner, and stewart didn’t hesitate, dropping a 3-point shot that hit nothing but net.
The referees went to the sideline to ensure that the shot was from 3-point range, but it was no question — his feet were inches behind the line and the Trojans were in the lead with 38 seconds remaining.
The Mustangs scrambled to respond, driving in for a layup that earned a foul but then turning up empty at the free throw line. After another desperate drive to the basket, the final shot ricocheted off the rim and the Trojans sprinted to their bench, securing another unexpected berth to the next round of the tourney.
It was just another in a series of nail biter, edge-of-your-seat comebacks that have characterized the Trojans this entire season. For Stewart, the game reflected his team’s ability to perform in clutch moments.
“Everyone’s made differently,” Stewart said. “When the time comes, we always try to show up. I feel like that’s what we did tonight. There’s no explanation for it.”
USC will now take two days to prepare to face Baylor, a 3-seed that stumbled late in their season after holding the No. 1 spot in the nation. The team will once again enter the contest as the underdog against a Big 12 powerhouse that cruised to a 91-73 victory in the first round.
But no matter the spread or the BPI, the Trojans have made a point — they’re here to dance, and they’re here to stay.