Point guard Jordan McLaughlin had done it all for USC in the final part of its game with California on Sunday night, and with 5.6 seconds remaining, he was presented with his most daunting task: drive the length of the court, with the 25th-ranked Trojans trailing by a point, and beat the buzzer.
In the final 76 seconds, McLaughlin had already turned the ball over on a drive, drawn a foul, missed two free throws, had a shot blocked, and made a layup to briefly seize a lead. No other USC player attempted a shot in that stretch.
After California recaptured the lead, the Golden Bears called a timeout. Then McLaughlin got ready to go again.
McLaughlin beat a press, hurried to the paint, then slashed to the rim as the defense converged. His layup never reached the rim. Ivan Rabb blocked it, and California won, 74-73, before 5,528 at the Galen Center.
McLaughlin has been USC’s engine throughout its fast start. On Sunday, he scored another 20 points on seven-for-16 shooting and added five assists.
On the final play, “there was a lot of contact at the rim on his drive, he was bumped, and there was no call,” USC Coach Andy Enfield said. “Five and a half seconds left, you can't ask for more.”
The Trojans (15-2, 2-2 in the Pac-12) have built themselves a bit of a cushion, and now it is looking more useful. Their next five games will be bruising: at Utah and Colorado, then at home against Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA. USC could be favored in just one of the five.
This one was winnable, if only USC had made its free throws. The Trojans made 51% of their field goals. They made 58% of their three-point attempts. But they made just 10 of 21 free throws, less than 48%.
USC knew it had let one get away. After the game, Enfield spoke in clipped sentences. McLaughlin and forward Chimezie Metu barely raised their voices above a mumble. McLaughlin, who was an 84% free-throw shooter entering the game, was the worst offender from the line. He made three of eight attempts, including the two in the final minute.
“It was just one of those nights,” McLaughlin said. “That was basically where we lost the game.”
“When a guy's shooting over 80% and goes three for eight from the foul line, I can't explain that,” Enfield said. “I don't have all the answers.”
After McLaughlin’s late pair of missed free throws, USC was saved by shooting guard Elijah Stewart, who stole the outlet pass following Cal’s rebound and then found a teammate as he crashed out of bounds. That set up McLaughlin’s go-ahead layup with 17 seconds remaining.
But Metu fouled Rabb on the next possession, Rabb made both free throws, and that proved decisive for the Bears (11-5, 2-2).
Metu and Rabb had exchanged salvos for much of the night. Rabb, a potential NBA draft lottery pick, scored 17 points, grabbed eight rebounds, had three steals and blocked two shots. Metu countered with 20 points, six rebounds and two steals. At one point, he scored 10 consecutive USC points.
“I knew it was going to be a battle coming in,” Metu said. “I did a good job of getting [Rabb] in foul trouble, I just couldn't capitalize.”
Against the second-best defense in the Pac-12, USC had an offensive awakening Sunday, after starting the Pac-12 season with three of its worst four offensive performances. The Trojans had gotten by mostly because opponents Oregon State and Stanford were both without their best players.
Did Sunday mark any progression? Enfield appeared disinterested.
“I can't remember our games,” he said. “But sounds good to me.”
Enfield said he didn’t think USC was leaning too heavily on McLaughlin late, despite a Cal defense that McLaughlin said was collapsing on him late.
“We got exactly what we wanted,” Enfield said of the final play.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand