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To defeat Providence, USC must first confront last season's collapse

The USC men’s basketball team was marooned at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday afternoon after its charter flight to the NCAA tournament’s First Four was delayed four hours because of a mechanical issue. The turnaround to Wednesday’s play-in game against Providence was already tight, and the delay ripped away another chunk of time from the Trojans.

They figured they might as well use it productively. So in a room at the airport, the coaching staff set up some game video of a brutal loss to Providence last year in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

For most players, it was the first time they had watched.

"My first thought was, ‘How did we lose?’ ” forward Chimezie Metu said.

Nobody had the stomach to provide an answer. Metu watched up until the final 10 minutes, then stopped. So did forward Bennie Boatwright. USC led by five points then. It led for most of the second half until, with 1.5 seconds left, it didn’t.

"It's still on my mind,” Boatwright said.

"It was one of those things where, I don't how to explain it,” guard Elijah Stewart said. “It was one of those, look back, you're like, 'Man, we messed up back there.' It didn't help that I messed up on the last play."

The pain from that last play is what drove USC’s players away from watching the full game. They did not want to see Stewart let his eyes linger too long on Providence star Kris Dunn. They didn’t want to see Rodney Bullock slip free behind Stewart, nor did they want to watch Jordan McLaughlin, the help man, shade too far away from the paint.

"They were trying to run a back screen or something,” Stewart said. “They messed the play up. I froze. I was sitting there, wasn't moving. I think my man, he slipped to go to the other side.

"If anyone was going to shoot the shot, I thought it was going to be Dunn."

Most other players still don’t know exactly what happened on the play, in which Bullock made a layup off an inbound pass. But its reverberations haunted USC for an off-season, and its memory might have lingered as the Trojans flirted with, and sometimes met, late-game demise this season.

Exorcising the memory was always going to be a battle when USC returned to the NCAA tournament. Its relevance only swelled when USC once again drew Providence in a rematch.

"It's time to get redemption,” Metu said.

Each team will be missing big chunks of last season’s core. Providence Coach Ed Cooley called both teams “totally different.”

Last season, Providence was making its third straight NCAA tournament appearance. Dunn, its point guard and leader, was a senior and the most experienced player on the floor.

This season, USC still uses one of the youngest rotations in the nation — 326th out of 351 according to statistician Ken Pomeroy. But it is more battle-hardened.

This time, USC brings the experienced point guard, McLaughlin, and its fortunes usually shadow his. McLaughlin is not considered the USC player with the most NBA potential; that would be Metu or Boatwright.

But McLaughlin is the player USC looks to in late-game situations. He was Coach Andy Enfield’s first major recruit, and he has become the foundation around which the program has been built.

McLaughlin was the only USC player Cooley mentioned by name is his news conference on Tuesday.

“He’s the maestro for them,” Cooley said. “I think he’s one of the best guards in the country.”

McLaughlin said he has gotten over last season’s loss, but the responsibility weighed on him. In the post-game locker room, a dejected McLaughlin laid the blame on himself, even though Enfield later said it was Stewart who let his man slip free.

The late-game struggles have bled into this season. USC nearly squandered a late lead against Arizona State at home. Then it did on the road against Arizona State, putting its NCAA tournament bid in jeopardy. The Trojans narrowly avoided a collapse against Washington in the Pac-12 tournament.

In each, there was a similar pattern: a stagnant offense, botched easy baskets, missed free throws and turnovers.

"It's just experience and staying composed, taking care of the ball and making free throws,” Boatwright said. “We’ve learned from those mistakes.”

The same problems doomed USC before the last inbound play a year ago. Enfield was saving the film from those final seconds for later Tuesday evening, after the team’s practice, according to Boatwright.

“I'll tell you about it tomorrow,” Boatwright said.

By then, he hoped, he could talk about how the Trojans had put the play behind them.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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