USC falters at the finish in NCAA tournament loss to Providence

The season was on the line, and USC was panicking.

In a stunned postgame locker room, the players would run through all the ways it had lost Thursday's NCAA tournament first-round game to Providence, 70-69.

If only the Trojans had slowed down, been less reckless. If only they had made their free throws. If only they'd gotten that offensive rebound.

The fact was, despite all of it, USC led by one with three seconds remaining. Providence was inbounding under USC's basket. USC needed one stop.

"A simple ball out of bounds," point guard Julian Jacobs said. "We go over it every single day."

Two Providence players rubbed past a screen. Kris Dunn went left. USC followed. Rodney Bullock leaked toward the rim, all alone. "Both of the defenders went with Kris," Bullock said. "When I slipped off I was wide open."

He made the layup, and USC's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011 ended in heartbreak.

"It's one of the worst ways to lose," guard Katin Reinhardt said. "We're going home when we should be playing."

Afterward, in a quiet locker room, USC players knew that something had changed with about two minutes left in the game. What?

"I hate to say panic," Jacobs said. "But we looked very uncomfortable."

The spiral began with two minutes and 20 seconds remaining, USC led by five points.

Point guard Jordan McLaughlin forced a steal. He could have milked the clock. Instead, McLaughlin tried a half-court outlet pass to Jacobs.

"He was open," McLaughlin said.

But the pass was short, and Ben Bentil punished the mistake with a dunk.

On the next possession, Jacobs forced a pass inside after a pick and roll. Another turnover.

On the other end, Dunn made a three-pointer, and the score was tied at 68-68.

During practices this season, the coaching staff often ends scrimmages with free-throw shooting competitions.

But nothing can re-create NCAA tournament pressure.

The first missed free throw came with 58 seconds left, when Bennie Boatwright clanked the first of a two-shot foul.

"I should've knocked it down," Boatwright said.

He made the second, and USC held a tenuous lead.

The second miss came with 27 seconds left. Elijah Stewart was fouled. He went to the line, shooting one-and-one.

The ball rattled around the rim and came out.

"Any other day, that shot goes in," Stewart said. "But we're in March now. Shots that you usually shoot just aren't the same."

But again, USC's defense held firm.

The third missed free throw came with 12 seconds left. Jacobs drew a foul. He too shot one-and-one.

He too missed. Three USC players who all shoot better than 70% from the line missed three of four foul shots late.

At the other end of the floor, Dunn missed a first attempt, but it went out of bounds off USC, to set up the inbounds play.

McLaughlin, who was defending the inbounder, said he misread the player's eyes and allowed an open pass.

After Bullock's make, Jacob's desperation heave went wide. Nikola Jovanovic put his jersey over his face. McLaughlin put both hands on his head. Jacobs walked into the tunnel with his head down.

Some players were still in shock 30 minutes later.

"You just have a void in your stomach," Boatwright said. "You know you should have something there, but it's not there."

Several players said USC had performed well enough to win. The Trojans shot almost 54%, to Providence's 40%. McLaughlin scored 15 points, and Jovanovic scored 14.

USC prevented Providence's stars, Bentil and Dunn, from going off. Bentil scored 19 points, below his average, and Dunn, the two-time Big East player of the year, scored 16.

"I still can't believe we won the game," Providence Coach Ed Cooley said.

Said Jacobs: "I can't tell you how many times we stressed free throws, guarding the ball out of bounds. We had the game in our hands. We let it fall right through."

Jacobs sighed.

"Gosh," he said, and put his head in his hands.

Follow Zach Helfand Twitter: @zhelfand

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 18, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Layup drilled - Trojans fall apart in closing minutes and are ousted by Friars when they lose a player on inbounds play. - PROVIDENCE 70, USC 69" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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