Tragedy. If you watch enough USC basketball, you know the full meaning of the word. Weeks ago, the Trojans blew a 15-point lead to lose to Stanford on a half-court heave at the buzzer. It was only Saturday when the Trojans blew a nine-point lead with under 10 minutes to go at UCLA. Surely, they would not relive their late-game unworkings on Thursday night at Arizona State. Right? Wrong. In the fashion of Trojan tragedy, the Men of Troy blew a seven-point lead with 2:30 to play. Arizona won 80-78, finishing the game on a 9-0 run.
As the Trojans (17-8, 8-4) flew to Tempe, Arizona, they knew that Thursday night’s game against the Arizona State Sun Devils would be crucial. Just one game behind the Arizona Wildcats for first place in the Pac-12, two wins this weekend would put them in sole possession of first place. Two losses could leave them in a tie for fifth.
However, the Trojans sputtered out of the gate versus the Sun Devils (18-6, 6-6), scoring only nine points in the first 10 minutes. Uncharacteristically, guard Jordan McLaughlin turned the ball over three times in the opening minutes. Turnovers would plague USC throughout the game. They would commit 18, including two crucial ones in the final minutes.
Nevertheless, ASU did not capitalize on USC’s early errors. The Sun Devils, who average nine 3-point field goals per game, made one of nine in the first half. Thus, USC actually took the lead into the locker room, 37-33. Forwards Nick Rakocevic and Bennie Boatwright each had 12 points at the half.
In the second half, neither team broke free. Both started to shoot far better. In fact, it seemed as if ASU guard Shannon Evans could not miss. Actually, he had one crucial miss that will go unnoticed in history because he redeemed himself two possessions later. He finished with five 3-point field goals and 21 points, including the game-tying three with 49 seconds to play. He made it from way downtown.
But, USC had answers, too. Nick Rakocevic continued to score. He finished with a team-high 19 points. Guard Jonah Mathews added eight off the bench, all in the second half.
Mathews, an elite defender, fouled out with 4:32 to play. Perhaps, if he had been in the game, Shannon Evans would not have made his late dagger.
Before Evans made that shot, though, the tide was turning toward the Sun Devils. After shrinking the lead to five with 2:06 to play, ASU Coach Bobby Hurley called a timeout.
Out of the timeout, Boatwright literally scooped the ball to the other team while dribbling past half court. The turnover led to two wide open 3-point attempts for ASU’s best shooters — Evans and guard Tra Holder, who finished with a game-high 22 points. Both missed. Those misses, which should have nipped ASU’s momentum, ended up being inconsequential because Boatwright turned the ball over again. After grabbing the defensive rebound, Boatwright slid on the floor, traveling. ASU’s Kodi Justice made a 2-point shot on the ensuing possession. Then, USC failed to score, and the next time down the court, Evans tied the game.
With 0:31 to play, USC forward Chimezie Metu missed a layup, effectively leaving ASU the final possession of the game. Hurley elected not to take a timeout, trusting Holder to run a play. Indeed, Holder scored with 1.9 seconds left.
With no other option, USC head coach Andy Enfield called a timeout and drew up a baseball pass from Shaqquan Aaron on the baseline to Metu at the 3-point line. Metu bobbled the ball and volleyball punched it as time expired.
Exhausted and exasperated, Metu turned his jersey inside out and pulled it over his face.
That image encapsulates all of USC’s collective frustration. Last year, it was excusable for USC to blow late leads on the road in conference play. This year, it is not. The Trojans might be experienced, but at times, they lack savvy. Luck does not explain a pattern of blown leads late in games.
The silver lining for the Trojans is that UCLA beat Arizona, meaning they can still take control of the conference by beating the Wildcats on Saturday (if UCLA also loses). That said, a loss would put the Trojans at 8-5 in conference play and, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, back on the outside of the NCAA Tournament bubble, looking inward.
After the UCLA loss, No. 13 Arizona carries a 19-6 record. They got off to an impressive start to conference play, but have now dropped two Pac-12 games in a row. Star players guard Allonzo Trier (19.9 point per game) and top NBA Draft prospect forward Deandre Ayton (19.7 point per game) will look to solidify the Wildcats’ conference lead on Saturday in Tucson.