As USC forward Bennie Boatwright ran down the court after making his fourth three-point basket of the game, he told a New Mexico State defender, “I’m on fire.”
He was right.
Boatwright scored a career-high 33 points, making six three-pointers, the last of which was the most important and traveled the longest distance. With the score tied and the shot clock winding down, Boatwright fired from more than five feet behind the three-point arc.
“They were playing the pick-and-rolls a certain way, so [coach Andy Enfield] felt like we could make a play off of that,” Boatwright said. “J-Mac came off [a screen], threw it to me and I was able to make the shot.”
The shot off a pass from Jordan McLaughlin splashed through with 4.1 seconds left, helping the Trojans (9-4) beat New Mexico State 77-72 in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic. Boatwright was selected the tournament’s most valuable player, a stark turnaround after Boatwright was thrown out of USC’s opening game in Hawaii after being called for a flagrant-2 foul in the first half.
“To get MVP of the tournament after scoring two points and getting ejected was pretty impressive,” Enfield said.
Boatwright was carrying the Trojans on Christmas afternoon, but he wasn’t the only one at the Stan Sheriff Center with flames flicking from his fingertips. Guard Zach Lofton was winning the back-and-forth battle. He made two free throws to give him 28 points and put the Aggies ahead by seven points with less than seven minutes remaining.
But they were Lofton’s final points. USC guards locked down on Lofton and the Trojans rallied from a deficit as they have so often the last two seasons. USC closed the gap to two points three times before finally overcoming the Aggies (11-3) with a 9-0 run to end the game.
“We're a resilient team. We're used to being down,” Boatwright said. “For some reason we want to make it hard, but we just kept fighting.”
The pattern was on display in the first half as well. The Trojans quickly fell behind 7-0 only to rebound with a 19-2 run sparked by an Enfield timeout.
The Trojans made nine consecutive shots in the middle of the first half, but they made only two of their next nine. By halftime the score was back even after New Mexico State outscored USC 19-9 over the final eight minutes thanks in part to 10 first-half offensive rebounds.
“They just played hard and we had to match their intensity,” Boatwright said.
USC did that and found a way to win despite leading scorer Chimezie Metu scoring a season-low six points on one-for-eight shooting. The rest of the team shot 58% for the game, including 52% on three-point shots. The Trojans also made all 14 of their free throws.
The Trojans remained undefeated in the Diamond Head Classic, having also won the inaugural tournament in 2009.
“For us to battle back and win this tournament is a credit to how [the players] have stuck together and performed under pressure,” Enfield said. “The last two games were right down to the wire and they performed down the stretch and won the championship.”