They were clutching the game tightly in their young hands, grasping
And then, in the final moments, hands became sweaty, minds became mottled and the game became giant, its burden unwieldy
Quickly, painfully, it slipped, and slipped, and slipped, until it crashed to the floor amid prone bodies and their stifled tears.
By the time the Trojans' array of bad passes and missed free throws and even a botched dunk ended, Providence was running an inbounds play under the USC basket with three seconds remaining and trailing by one.
At which point, the Trojans committed one final mental blunder, a miscommunication that allowed Rodney Bullock to slip through for a layup with 1.5 seconds left to give Providence a 70-69 victory.
Gone was a chance to build on their rebirth of a season.
"We had the game in our hands and just let it fall right through," said Julian Jacobs, haltingly, on the verge of sobbing.
Gone was a chance to continue their move to the national stage with a second-round game against powerful North Carolina.
"Nobody wants to lose like that. It's one of the worst ways to lose, it's crazy, we're going home when we should be playing," said Katin Reinhardt, his words cutting with disbelief.
Gone was an opportunity to steal the Southland sports fans' attention for at least two more days while making the statement that this is not the same old USC basketball team.
In the last five minutes, they blew that chance.
When the game ended, seemingly everyone in the small crowd screamed in either elation or dismay. The Friars hugged and danced from baseline to baseline. The Trojans dropped to the ground in front of their bench, jerseys over faces, eyes reddening, frozen in place, again.
"It was right there for us, we played hard, followed the game plan, but at the end of the day, they made the last basket," said Jordan McLaughlin, shaking his head.
The Trojans' biggest weakness entering this game was their inexperience, as only one member of the team had ever played in the NCAA tournament, and the entire team is so young every key player will be returning next season.
The weakness won. Their youthfulness showed. They weren't ready for the moment, and it owned them.
"We just looked very immature at the end," Jacobs said.
The Trojans outshot, outrebounded and often outhustled the less-talented Friars. But Jacobs was right: They sorely lost the battle for maturity.
The meltdown started with a terrific play by McLaughlin … followed by a questionable play by McLaughlin.
With 2:20 remaining and the Trojans leading, 68-63, the guard made an athletic steal that could have set up USC for a long possession that could have put the game out of reach. Instead, though, he immediately heaved the ball downcourt to Jacobs, but two Friars were there and the ball was lost.
At the other end, Ben Bentil dunked and the gap was closed.
"A couple of times, we should have slowed the ball down," McLaughlin admitted.
Moments later, Jacobs made a bad pass to Nikola Jovanovic, the Friars' Kris Dunn responded with a three-pointer, and the score was tied.
After that, Bennie Boatwright missed a dunk and then made only one of two free throw attempts. Then Jacobs lost the ball on an unwise floor-length drive. Then Elijah Stewart missed a foul shot. Then, exactly at midnight, Jacobs missed another free throw.
Somehow in all of that, the Trojans had managed to take a one-point lead and even had their hands on the game-clinching defensive rebound in the final seconds when the ball glanced off Stewart's hands.
This set up the final inbounds play and, even then, maybe especially then, the Trojans thought they were going to survive
"Man, it's crazy, you feel like you had the game, you're gonna win the game, you've just got to get one stop," Reinhardt said.
Maybe a year from now, they get that stop. Maybe a year from now, they look back on this game as a positive learning experience that pushed them closer to their starry potential.
Maybe then, but not now, because they didn't get that stop, because Providence's inbounds passer Drew Edwards looked right and McLaughlin followed his eyes and Edwards promptly passed it left to a wide-open Bullock for the layup win.
"I got out of position, I put the last one on me, I was reading the guy taking out the ball, he looked one way, Bullock was open on the other side," said McLaughlin softly. "It was right there for us."
And then it wasn't, and now USC's shining moment has disappeared and the Trojans' fine 21-13 record might not feel so good for a while, and they will fly home with lessons learned.
The Trojans deserve much credit for meeting reporters afterward with honest answers and no excuses. Their locker room was a littered place of mourning, but they faced every question, ducked nothing and vowed to grow.
"It hurts a lot, but it's going to help us in the summer and the upcoming season," said McLaughlin.
There was a real sense in that locker room that these Trojans can indeed grow into the sort of team that wins these games. Just not yet. Just not on this night, when March was at its toughest, and the Madness was at its worst.