The gears of a March loss grind without a rulebook or a leader. In USC’s locker room Sunday evening, the loser’s soundtrack spun on autoplay: The spatter of a shower, the low hush of voices and the scraping of velcro as a staffer peeled off USC’s nameplates, the evidence that the Trojans had made it here, to the locker room of the BOK Center, for a chance to go to the regional semifinals.
A cramped room packed with reporters a day ago was nearly empty. A whiteboard that two days ago had announced 26 wins, a program record, was blank. The players’ phones that for much of the week looped highlights were silent, replaced by a name that would linger probably for a few days after 11th-seeded USC’s 82-78 loss to No. 3 Baylor in the NCAA tournament second round:
“Lecomte,” forward Chimezie Metu. “Or whatever his name is.”
Lecomte Or Whatever His Name Is is Manu Lecomte, a Belgian kinesiology major who managed to do what Providence and Southern Methodist before him could not. Thirty-five minutes into the game, he hadn’t scored a single point; Forty-five seconds and eight points later, he’d almost single-handedly halted another Trojans comeback.
“He kind of took over in the last couple minutes,” Metu said.
This is what it had taken to finally terminate the NCAA tournament’s zombies, the Trojans, who had reached this point with rise-from-the-dead comebacks. With 4 minutes 39 seconds remaining, USC led by two. Lecomte took a pass atop the three-point arc and launched his seventh shot of the day.
USC shooting guard Elijah Stewart rotated over and leaped. The ball dropped through the net. A whistle blew. Stewart had interfered with the shot.
“He hit me on the arm,” Lecomte said.
“A flop,” said Stewart. “I don’t know man. At this point, I really don’t know.”
Lecomte hit the free throw. Eleven seconds later, he stole the ball from point guard Jordan McLaughlin, drew a foul and made two more free throws. Thirty-three seconds after that, he knifed through USC’s defense for a layup.
USC called timeout. It was too late.
“This was a game that was there for the taking if we would have executed down the stretch,” Coach Andy Enfield said.
USC had swashbuckled through its first two games of the tournament with guts and flair. The Trojans flirted with collapse, then mounted furious comebacks. Against Providence in the First Four game, they trailed by 17. Against SMU, they trailed by 12.
“I actually joked with Andy,” Baylor Coach Scott Drew said. “I said, ‘Do you want to be up at halftime?’ He said, ‘No, no, we like being down.’”
So USC had the Bears just where it liked in the first half. The Bears harassed USC with their length all evening. USC outshot the Bears, 55% to 51%. But the Bears grabbed 11 more rebounds and scored eight more points in the paint. Baylor used it to seize a 10-point lead late in the first half.
But USC had already won 13 games after trailing by double figures.
“We were there before,” forward Nick Rakocevic said. “It made it seem like we were going to win this thing.”
Prompt enough to set a clock to, USC began its charge. The Trojans scored 10 points unanswered in a run that spanned the end of the first half and the start of the second. Seventy-six seconds into the second half, the score was tied.
“We knew what we had. We had 20 minutes to compete,” McLaughlin said. “And we competed.”
The normal rhythm returned. In the middle of the period, USC (26-10) made nine field goals in a row. Metu came alive for 28 points, 21 in the second half. Bennie Boatwright scored 16.
But Baylor (27-7) was kept alive by an unlikely source: light-scoring King McClure, who tied a career high with 17 points. He kept the game close. Lecomte grabbed it by the collar.
The crash this time of year comes fast. On Thursday, fresh off two fairly stunning wins, the Trojans reveled in the attention they felt they’d been lacking all season. Players could talk about how they’d been written off and disrespected to some of the people they’d felt had written them off and disrespected them.
USC was nearly alone in Sunday’s locker room. A flow of reporters marched to Baylor’s spacious digs down the hall. Two stopped into USC’s. “It is what it is,” Stewart said.
No one cried in the locker room. For the fourth year under Enfield, USC improved. Its tournament run was its deepest since 2009. “I’m proud of everybody,” Stewart said.
“The experience was just unreal for all of us,” Rakocevic said.
Not long after the last shower shut off, some USC players learned No. 2 seed Duke had lost. The path was clearing for them, if only they could have gotten past Baylor.
But down the hall, the winners were experiencing “the happiest feeling in the world,” Baylor guard Jake Lindsey said.
The losers got some pasta in a metal tray and a walk to the bus.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand