In a rivalry game against UCLA, the stakes were high for the Trojans. Three-year captain Jordan McLaughlin, USC’s all-time leader in minutes played, and forward Elijah Stewart, USC’s all-time leader in 3-point field goals, were playing their last games ever at the Galen Center. The same was probably true for junior forward Chimezie Metu, a top prospect in the NBA Draft. The three of them have helped USC transition from worst in the Pac-12 three years ago to second in the conference this year. Along the way, they have shared two NCAA Tournament wins and two Tournament berths.
However, Saturday night’s game did not go their way. Although the Trojans (21-10, 12-6) took a double-digit lead in the first half, they immediately allowed the Bruins (20-10, 11-7) an 11-0 run. USC would regain a 3-point lead at halftime, 43-40. Yet, their final lead slipped away with 10 minutes to play in the game. Ultimately, the Bruins won 83-72, spoiling Senior Night and, perhaps, USC’s shot at a third consecutive NCAA Tournament win.
“We got outplayed for 10 minutes and that’s it,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “UCLA made shot after shot. We had trouble stopping them.”
In fact, a pair of Bruins flashed career nights: guard Aaron Holiday and small forward Kris Wilkes. Holiday, who led the Pac-12 in scoring this season, scored 34, converting on 6-of-9 3-point shots. In addition, guard Kris Wilkes, one of the top freshmen in the conference, scored 22 points.
McLaughlin commended Holiday’s performance. Either of them could be named the top point guard in the conference or the nation.
On Saturday, McLaughlin had an unusual but very good performance. Normally a pass-first player, McLaughlin shot the ball a season high 19 times. He scored 19 points and tallied four assists, more than three short of his season average.
This year’s home finale had several highlights for the Trojans. In the first half, the Trojans slammed home three dunks in a span of two minutes. McLaughlin connected with Metu on an alley-oop thrown from beyond half court.
Then, Stewart and redshirt junior Shaqquan Aaron each made a dunk of their own. Slam City, a label these upperclassmen have built for the program over the past few seasons, was on full display throughout their final home game.
“Tonight was a rollercoaster of emotions,” Stewart said. He tried to stay mellow during the pregame festivities, but he could not help but feel excited once USC took a 10-point lead.
The game was also exhausting for him.
“Nowhere in the game did we think we were gonna lose, so we just kept playing as hard as we could until the time expired,” Stewart said.
USC will have to bounce back on Thursday night when they play their first game in the Pac-12 Tournament. Or else, they will not get an NCAA Tournament bid. After tonight’s game, ESPN has UCLA listed as one of the last four teams in the Tournament while USC is one of the last four teams out.
Enfield is worried about winning, not prognosticating.
“We are not even concerned about the NCAA tournament,” he said. “We just want to play the best basketball we can in Las Vegas.”
It was a bittersweet season for the Trojans. Although they finished second in the conference, they failed to meet preseason expectations. They were swept by UCLA, lost to Princeton at home and lost rematches against Texas A&M and SMU, two teams they beat last year.
Overall, they assembled a resume that puts them on the border of an NCAA berth. Of course, winning the Pac-12 Tournament will guarantee a bid. Two wins, which equals a trip to the conference championship, should be enough. One win or none and the Trojans might not be invited to the Big Dance.
“Everyone has to strap up their shoes and play their best,” Stewart said.
Any less than their best, and the Trojans’ postseason aspirations will come to an end in Las Vegas.