USC had played it perfectly. With the game tied in the waning seconds, the Trojans had forced a Stanford miss. And their leader, senior guard Jordan McLaughlin, had dribbled the length of the court, put a stop-and-start move on Stanford’s Kezie Okpala and made a difficult off-balanced layup while falling to the ground with 1.7 seconds remaining.
Barring a prayer on the other end, the game would be over, USC would have won its third straight conference game and taken another step toward rebuilding its season after a mediocre start.
But, there was still time for Stanford to throw up a Hail Mary. Freshman guard Daejon Davis took one dribble and tossed up a shot from beyond center court. It had good arc, good trajectory. The horn sounded. The red lights on the backboard flashed. And the ball — it dropped through.
A split second, and then bedlam.
Stanford’s players piled on top of Davis in celebration. The packed student section at Maples Pavilion erupted. On the other side, junior forward Chimezie Metu just stood at halfcourt, his hands on his head, incredulous. McLaughlin, who had taken a tumble after making the layup, walked gingerly toward his bench before sitting on the court in disbelief, staring up at the jumbotron.
“I was just hoping he didn’t get it off in time,” McLaughlin said.
The replay, though, was clear: Davis’ shot was good. The final — Stanford 77, USC 76. And like that, USC had gone from jubilation to heartbreak, from big road conference win to another crushing defeat for a team needing to stockpile victories to save its NCAA Tournament hopes.
“I’ve never lost like that before,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “Give Stanford credit. They made the last play of the game. We made one with 1.7 left, they made one with no time left. It was just an unbelievable shot.”
USC head coach Andy Enfield: “I’ve never lost like that before … we made one with 1.7 left and they made one with no time left” pic.twitter.com/MMyNjSVLsj
— Eric He (@erichesports) January 8, 2018
However, there were chances for USC to put the game away on Sunday. The Trojans took a 47-36 lead into halftime, but they let the Cardinal back into the game. After Metu’s jumper put USC ahead 68-53 midway through the second half, the Trojans’ offense disappeared. They managed just two field goals in the next nine minutes, while the Cardinal went on a 21-4 run to take the lead.
“We were up . We should’ve kept going,” McLaughlin said. “They went on a run and we couldn’t stop the run for a few minutes. We just got to execute and get that lead up higher.”
But in a game of back-and-forth spurts by both sides, the Trojans couldn’t stop the Cardinal’s final run. They could not contain Stanford’s Reid Travis, a 6-foot-8, 245-pound forward who poured in a game-high 29 points and shot 11 free throws, out-muscling USC’s big men.
“We need to do a better job guarding the low post,” Enfield said.
Jordan McLaughlin on Stanford’s halfcourt buzzer beater: “it’s college basketball. Anything can happen … we were up 16 and didn’t take care of business” pic.twitter.com/UFWEmSW4N5
— Eric He (@erichesports) January 8, 2018
Ultimately, USC failed to close out a game that it had in its grasps. The Trojans had it set up nicely after falling behind early, 7-0. They quickly flipped a switch, forcing turnovers and making 3-pointers to take control of the game. McLaughlin’s streaking layup to beat the first half buzzer and extend the lead to double digits punctuated 20 minutes of USC playing to its strengths. None of that translated to the critical parts of the second half.
“We were playing very well,” Enfield said. “We had a couple crucial turnovers. We missed some really easy shots. It seemed like they made every shot for about a 4-5 minute stretch to really cut the lead down.”
The Trojans wound up with 10 turnovers, most of them coming in the second half after recording just two in the first half. They had strong scoring distribution — Metu leading the way with 20 points, McLaughlin adding 16. Sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic had 17 points and seven rebounds, flashing energy and hustle. Junior forward Bennie Boatwright scored 13 points.
None of it mattered, though, in the end. In all the years that Enfield has played and coached basketball, he said he’s never lost like this. For McLaughlin, it was a loss that ranks among the toughest in his career.
“We were in [the locker room] saying that really didn’t just happen,” McLaughlin said. “I just keep replaying it. It’s crazy. Tough way to lose.”