These Trojans know drama all too well. On senior day and in the last game at the Galen Center for six of the Trojans’ 15 players, USC nearly blew it.
But they didn’t. After relinquishing a 11-point second-half lead, the Trojans eked out a 57-56 win over Arizona State on Saturday after a 35-foot heave by the Sun Devils’ Jahii Carson clanked off the rim at the buzzer.
The Trojans (14-15, 9-7 Pac-12) haven’t excelled at the line in their past two games, but it was an official review and two ensuing free throws that allowed them to avenge their overtime loss to the Sun Devils (20-10, 9-8) in January.
USC led 55-52 and had possession with 53 seconds left. But after junior shooting guard J.T. Terrell bricked a jumper, senior forward Eric Wise managed to grab the rebound and get fouled. The only problem? It appeared that the shot clock expired before Wise was fouled.
After five minutes of official review and hushed anticipation in the home crowd, the referees confirmed the foul. Wise coolly hit both free throws, and USC’s lead was back to five with 19 seconds left.
“I didn’t know exactly what happened,” said USC interim head coach Bob Cantu. “We were going to plan on them having the ball and we were going to plan on defending that last possession. Then, we found out we got the free throws.”
Some on the Trojan bench had a different take.
“I knew,” said junior center Omar Oraby about the foul call. “I was right there on the bench, I saw it happen. So I knew that there was a foul and that the ball was ours. So, I wasn’t really worried about it.”
Arizona State managed to get the final possession after two layups, a Trojan turnover while inbounding the ball and a Wise miss on the front end of a one-and-one. But Carson, who led all scorers with 23 points, couldn’t get one final shot to fall. Cantu didn’t underestimate the importance of the Pac-12 win.
“It’s never easy,” Cantu said. “Everything you do in this conference is always earned, whether it’s home or away. We did a great job of hanging on, and at the end of the day we got the win.”
Wise led the Trojans with 12 points, while sophomore guard Byron Wesley had 11 points and Terrell finished with 10 points. Junior forward Dewayne Dedmon was mired in foul trouble but finished with nine rebounds and three blocks to go with four points.
The Trojans were cruising for most of the second half and went up, 46-30, with 11:08 to go. The Sun Devils shot 46.9 percent from the field in the second half compared to 37.5 percent in the opening half, but USC still maintained a 51-37 lead with 7:34 to go. Over the next two minutes, though, the Sun Devils went on an 8-0 run to cut the deficit to six.
This stretch was punctuated by a flagrant foul by USC’s most tenured starter, senior point guard Jio Fontan. Fontan had exited the game eight minutes earlier after falling hard to the floor following a missed jumper and coming up holding his right wrist. But in his last game at home, Fontan went to the locker room, wrapped up his wrist and returned after missing about six minutes of the game.
“The trainer said he probably couldn’t,” Cantu said on Fontan’s return to the game. “I looked down the bench and asked [Fontan] if he could go, and he said ‘Yeah.’”
Following his return, Fontan was dribbling the ball up the court when, while trying to shield his wrist, he swung and connected his elbow with Carson. Carson made the two free throws given for the ensuing flagrant foul call on Fontan, and then hit a jumper on the ensuing possession to convert a four-point play.
“The rules are the rules,” Fontan said. “I swung my elbows, not intentionally to hit him, of course. I knew he knew it wasn’t intentional … [but] it was the right call.”
Another issue that flared up in the second half was USC’s struggle to guard seven-foot-two ASU center Jordan Bachynski. The Canadian product had 12 of his 17 points in the second half and could force Cantu and the coaching staff to make adjustments in the post defense.
“The key to it is if you can stop penetration, you don’t give any advantage,” Cantu said. “If penetration is coming from the top of the wing, then all of a sudden people are in a scramble and people are helping up and giving them opportunities to get layups and dunks.”
In a gesture to his departing players, Cantu went with an all-senior starting lineup. This included the first starts of the season for center James Blasczyk and guard Tyler Sugiyama — in fact, it was Sugiyama’s first start of his four-year tenure at USC. Sugiyama played 60 seconds and then was subbed out to the chorus of an appreciative ovation from the home crowd.
The Trojans raced out to a 28-9 lead, as Arizona State made just three of their first 16 shots. USC’s suffocating defense let down as the Sun Devils went on an 11-3 run to end the half down just 11, but the Trojans were by far the better squad in the opening half. The Trojan bench also outscored ASU, 16-3, in the first half and 34-10 for the game.