A season that opened with a top 10 national ranking for USC men’s basketball, with talks of a potential Final Four berth, ended Monday night in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament.
In a contest that came down to the final seconds, USC fell to visiting Western Kentucky in front of a Southern California home crowd at the Galen Center, 79-75.
A basket from WKU senior forward Justin Johnson gave the Hilltoppers a 76-73 lead with one minute remaining in regulation.
USC sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic’s late basket cut the WKU lead to 76-75 with 53 seconds to play.
A free throw from Johnson, who finished with a game-high 23 points (8-for-14 FG), put the Hilltoppers ahead 77-75 with 33 seconds remaining.
On the ensuing USC possession, freshman forward Jordan Usher airballed the potential go-ahead 3-pointer with 24 seconds left in play.
The Hilltoppers proceeded to put the nail in USC’s coffin with a dunk from WKU graduate student forward Dwight Coleby with 11 seconds remaining. Coleby’s late slam put the Trojans behind, 79-75.
“It was a weird kind of game for our team, having so many players missing on our team,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “Western Kentucky played very, very well tonight. But we’re focused on all that we did accomplish this season.”
For the second consecutive game, USC was without its leading scorer, junior forward Chimezie Metu (15.7 PPG this season). Metu, who was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team this season, has elected to sit out of NIT games to avoid injury before the upcoming NBA Draft.
Despite not playing, Metu was in the general audience at the Galen Center, seated behind the USC bench.
“After speaking with administration and looking at policies, [it wouldn’t have been] possible for Metu to sit on the bench with the team as an inactive player,” Enfield said. “It was his decision [not to play in NIT]. And we respect him as a student-athlete. He’s given our program three fantastic seasons.”
USC’s biggest struggles Monday night may have came from the charity stripe, as the Trojans finished the game shooting 8-for-19 (42.1 percent) from the free-throw line. In completely opposite fashion, WKU hit 16 of its 17 free throw attempts (94.1 percent) against the Trojans.
“Yeah, we were terrible [at the free-throw line tonight] … that made a big difference in the game,” Enfield said.
It was a pair of free throws from WKU graduate student guard Darius Thompson that gave the Hilltoppers a 74-72 lead they would not relinquish with just over two minutes remaining in regulation.
After a layup from senior guard Jordan McLaughlin, USC led by 6 points with just under six minutes remaining, 67-61. McLaughlin concluded his illustrious USC career by recording a double-double Monday night; as he scored 13 points (6-for-13 FG) and collected 14 assists.
Rakocevic also recorded a double-double against the Hilltoppers. Despite being left out of the starting lineup, Rakocevic gave the Trojans an 11-point (5-for-7 FG), 10-rebound effort off the bench.
USC senior guard Elijah Stewart also put together a strong performance in what was his final game as a Trojan. Stewart, who concludes his USC career with the most 3-point field goals in USC history, finished Monday’s game with a team-high 20 points (8-for-13 FG).
Stewart hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to cut the Trojans’ then-deficit to 59-58 entering the final quarter of play. His last game with USC saw him hit 4-of-7 shots from beyond the arc.
A 12-3 run from WKU in the third quarter gave the Hilltoppers their largest lead of the game at 57-50.
The Trojans trailed the Hilltoppers at the halftime break, 40-39. A three-minute scoring drought in the second quarter from USC gave way to a 9-0 WKU run that gave the Hilltoppers a 38-35 lead with two minutes left in the half.
Stewart was tied for the game-high in scoring at the half with 12 points (5-for-9 FG). Stewart scored 10 points in the first quarter.
“It’s the end of a chapter in [some of our] lives … we’re going to miss it,” said Stewart after his final game as a Trojan. “We gave USC the best four years of our lives, and now it’s time to go be grown ups.”
Western Kentucky shot a combined 17-for-28 (60.7 percent) from the field in the first half.
With the loss, USC finished the 2017-18 season with a 24-12 record overall (12-6 in Pac-12 play). This season was USC’s third-consecutive with 20-plus victories. Over the past three seasons, USC has won a combined 71 games (the most in a three-year stretch in program history).
The Trojans’ second-place finish in the Pac-12 regular season standings was the highest conference finish in program history since 2002.
Over the offseason, the Trojans will deal with several key losses in their personnel. The losses will include vital seniors such as McLaughlin and Stewart, and almost certainly Metu. A young core and returning contributors for USC will look to keep the momentum of this program going forward in a positive direction.
“Well now, it’s the job of the next group of guys to step up and keep the winning going for our program,” Enfield said. “I can’t say enough about the upperclassmen we’ve had on our team. They came to USC when our program was rebuilding, and they have been the reason our program has [had so much success] the past three years.”