No. 10 USC’s first road test of the year against Vanderbilt on Sunday was a gauntlet of lead changes, loud fans and senior leadership.
In the first half, the Trojans fell behind by 14 points but ended the half on a 15-0 run to take a 35-34 lead into the break. In the second half, they once fell behind by double-digits and needed every last possession to force overtime. But in overtime, the Trojans never relinquished the lead and ultimately won, 93-89.
On the final possession of regulation, senior guard Jordan McLaughlin pulled up a yard behind the top of the key. Without hesitating, he arced his shot high into the air, dropping it in to tie the game at 80-80 with 28 seconds to play. On Vanderbilt’s final possession, senior guard Riley LaChance ran down the clock before penetrating into the paint where he was met by a stern defensive wall. Three Trojans surrounded him and leaped as he shot. His floater fell short and the buzzer sounded before anyone came away with the rebound.
In overtime, McLaughlin picked up where he left off, scoring USC’s first 5 points. Vanderbilt called a timeout with 3:40 to play. After volleys of missed jumpers, junior forward Chimezie Metu scored a layup to give the Trojans a 7-point lead with 1:49 left; it was the Trojans largest lead of the night, and it would prove insurmountable.
Co-captains McLaughlin and junior forward Metu rose to the occasion, guiding their team through a rollercoaster of ups and downs. All night, the duo picked apart Vanderbilt’s defense with its pick-and-roll. McLaughlin finished with a career high 35 points, including 9 in overtime plus the last 3 in regulation. He shot 5-of-11 from 3-point range and 6-of-6 from the free-throw line. As a team, the Trojans shot 94 percent (15-of-16) from the charity stripe. Although Metu started slowly, shooting just 2-of-9 from the floor in the first half, he ended with 23 points and eight rebounds.
In the final 3:30 of the first half, it appeared USC had worked out its road opener jitters. During a 15-0 run, four different Trojans made five consecutive 3-pointers. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt did not even get a shot attempt off as it turned the ball over each of its last four possessions.
Nevertheless, the Commodores roared back to life in the second half due to an outstanding performance by senior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis. Fisher-Davis scored 31 points and recorded 11 rebounds. With 9:37 to play, Fisher-Davis sank a 3-pointer to give the Commodores a 62-52 lead, their second double digit lead of the night. However, that was his last field goal.
As he cooled down, McLaughlin warmed up.
With 2:24 to play, McLaughlin fielded a long rebound and pushed the ball coast-to-coast to score against a Vanderbilt defense with numbers. Furthermore, he drew a foul and completed the 3-point play to put his team up 73-71.
But, the Trojans were not yet out of the woods. Junior forward Bennie Boatwright picked up his fourth and fifth fouls with under two minutes left. When he fouled out, he left Vanderbilt’s Djery Baptiste at the line. Baptiste converted both his free throws to give Vanderbilt a 75-73 lead. Metu tied the game at the line on USC’s ensuing possession, and then Vanderbilt’s LaChance converted a three point play. Metu made two more free throws to put the score at 78-77 in favor of Vanderbilt, and head coach Andy Enfield called a full-court press on Vanderbilt’s inbounds play.
The inbounder, senior Jeff Roberson, connected to guard Larry Austin Jr. on a 94-foot football pass to beat the press for an easy lay-up and to extend the lead to 3 with 36 seconds to play. But on the other end, McLaughlin silenced the fans with his dagger from atop the key to keep USC alive.
The Trojans once again proved they play very comfortably down double-digits. Last year, half of their 26 wins were double-digit comebacks. This year, two of their three wins have come in similar fashion.
Furthermore, the Trojans should be concerned by their depth. For the second game in a row, the bench scored a 5 points — Sunday coming entirely from junior forward Shaqquan Aaron. Be that as it may, the Trojans advanced to 3-0 with a hard-earned road victory versus a Power-5 opponent. They will remain ranked in the top-10 for another week.