Men’s basketball narrowly loses to New Mexico

Over the course of the final 14 minutes of Saturday’s contest against New Mexico, the USC men’s basketball team held the Lobos without a field goal.

But that didn’t necessarily equate to a win.

Watching a narrow one-point lead whittle away, the Trojans’ late surge was undone as New Mexico converted all four free-throw attempts in the final 90 seconds to pull out a 44-41 victory at the Galen Center.

“We played hard, with great effort,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said. “We hung in and got the lead, but we couldn’t finish.”

When the Trojans (4-6) opened the game with just 15 points in the opening half, their lowest total in any half all season, any chances of mounting a comeback seemed bleak. After all, entering the contest, USC ranked 334th nationally in points per game at 55.1.

But defensively at least, the team held the Lobos to 21 points in the second half, putting itself in a position to notch what would have been its fifth victory of the season. And over the final 14-minute stretch, it limited New Mexico to just eight shot attempts, forcing 10 turnovers as well.

“We’re not making shots,” O’Neill said of his team, which shot 33 percent from the field. “It’s been like that for the entire year.”

Toward the end, however, USC made enough shots — or so it seemed — to beat visiting New Mexico (7-2).

Trailing 40-38 with just under two minutes left to play, sophomore center Dewayne Dedmon grabbed a rebound following a missed 3-point attempt from sophomore forward Evan Smith and scored on a layup, to knot the score at 40 apiece, energizing much of the announced crowd of 3,863. A subsequent free throw from Dedmon gave USC a 41-40 lead — its first since it led 6-5 less than five minutes into the first half.

Moments later, Smith, who was making his first appearance of the season and first since Dec. 11, 2009, was called for a flagrant foul after attempting to block a layup attempt from New Mexico guard Tony Snell.

The pair of free throws, which were the Lobos’ first points since Snell scored with 14:16 remaining in the second half, gave them a lead they would not relinquish. The 44 points scored, collectively, also marked a season low for New Mexico.

“Our defense is way ahead of where I thought we’d be,” O’Neill said. “I’m happy with what we’re doing. We’re just not able to get wins.”

This was USC’s third loss at home, all of which have come by six points or fewer.

“We’re not getting good starts to the game,” said Dedmon, who was held to seven points. “Every game we start slow. Every game we start from behind.”

Sophomore guard Maurice Jones was the only USC player to finish with double-digit point totals, scoring 19 points and converting seven of 18 attempts from the field. Jones, who is listed at 5-foot-7, also led the Trojans in rebounding with five — tied with Dedmon and junior forward Aaron Fuller.

Jones had one last chance to give USC a chance in the waning moments.

On the final possession of the game, Jones launched a desperation heave from just beyond the arc, which would have forced overtime, but it failed to hit the rim.

“We’re frustrated, tired of losing,” Jones said of the Trojans’ third loss in the last five games. “We’ve got to fix it.”

Following the game, USC’s offensive numbers dipped even further, as it now averages 53.7 points per game.

“Of course we’re behind offensively,” O’Neill said. “The day [senior guard] Jio [Fontan] tore his knee in Brazil, we were behind offensively. Our guys need to find a better feel for the game.”

USC’s next game is Dec. 17 at home against Georgia, which holds a 4-5 overall record after dropping its last four games. It has not won since Nov. 22.