The USC men’s basketball team made sure its final game of the season was one to remember — even without a victory.
After nearly clinching a win in regulation, only to have it snatched away by a questionable call, the Trojans (16-14, 8-10) came up just short in a double-overtime thriller at Arizona on Saturday. USC fell 86-84, bringing an end to a sanctions-shortened campaign and the beginning of a long offseason.
It was the fifth straight loss for a team that can now only watch as the Wildcats (16-14, 10-8) and the rest of its conference foes battle in the Pac-10 tournament, which is scheduled to begin Wednesday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. But after the game, first-year coach Kevin O’Neill was quick to praise his players’ energy in what has been USC’s most trying season in recent memory.
“This will be a team I will never forget because you couldn’t be more proud of their effort right till the last buzzer tonight,” O’Neill told ESPN Radio. “I think all Trojan fans can be really proud of these guys.”
As 14,591 audience looked on at the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz., Wildcats guard Nic Wise made a layup in traffic with 1.5 seconds left, leaving USC time for one last shot. But that layup proved to be the game-winner, as redshirt junior guard Donte Smith missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
It might never have come down to that.
With USC leading 69-66, sophomore forward Nikola Vucevic was whistled for fouling Arizona guard Kyle Fogg on an errant 3-point shot with 0.2 seconds remaining in the second half. Fogg proceeded to hit all three free throws, sending the game into overtime.
“Plays that I still can’t believe happened, happened,” O’Neill said.
That wasn’t the only controversial call of the game. Just moments before the tying 3-pointer, Fogg appeared to make a layup after the shot clock expired, but the basket counted. Then on the opening possession of overtime, officials ruled a turnover against USC when an Arizona defender seemingly pushed senior forward Marcus Johnson out of bounds.
The game looked to be slipping away from the Trojans in the first overtime, especially when senior guard Dwight Lewis fouled out with 1:07 left and USC trailing, 77-72. But after Fogg made a free throw, the Trojans responded with six unanswered points to force another overtime.
In the end though, the Wildcats had the final say in a contest that featured nine ties and eight lead changes. Despite facing one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, Arizona shot 47 percent from the field. Fogg and forward Derrick Williams, a former USC recruit, had 18 points apiece for the Wildcats.
Lewis, the Trojans’ all-time leader in games played, scored a game-high 21 points. Also playing in their final games for USC were senior guard Mike Gerrity and Johnson, recording 16 and 13 points, respectively. Redshirt junior forward Alex Stepheson added 14 points and 10 rebounds.
For the Trojans, it was the kind of game they had grown accustomed to in recent weeks.
“It’s unfortunate we lost five in a row at the end of the season, all of them one-possession games going down the stretch,” O’Neill said in his ESPN interview. “We could have easily gone the other way.”
They didn’t in this one, though they came painfully close. That leaves the Trojans waiting until Nov. 13 for another shot at snapping their losing streak when they host UC Irvine in next season’s opener.
But in some ways, Saturday’s game — and the season as a whole — was considered a victory in its own right.
“If you could ever title anything, it was a season of men,” O’Neill said. “These guys acted like men when they’re boys.”