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USC again rallies from double-digit deficit to advance in NCAA tournament with win over SMU

USC again rallies from double-digit deficit to advance in NCAA tournament with win over SMU
USC players (from left) De'Anthony Melton (22), Nick Rakocevic, Bennie Boatwright and Shaqquan Aaron (0) celebrate after defeating Southern Methodist, 66-65, to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament. (Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

In USC’s huddle, as Jonah Mathews grabbed him, shook him and told him — correctly, it turned out — that he was about to hit USC’s biggest shot in a decade, Elijah Stewart told Mathews to shut up and get the heck off him.

"I was like, 'Bro, you're messing up my vibes, man,'" Stewart said.

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A moment later, down two points to Southern Methodist, Stewart settled into his favorite spot in the corner. He received a pass just where he liked it. Mathews, in fact, had not messed with his juju.

With good vibes, yet another back-from-the-dead comeback and Stewart’s late three-pointer, 11th-seeded USC shocked No. 6 SMU, 66-65, Friday in an NCAA tournament East Regional first-round game. The Trojans set a program record with their 26th win of the season and advanced to the second round for the first time since 2009. They’ll play No. 3 Baylor on Sunday.

For the second game in a row, USC erased a double-digit deficit and won; it now has 13 such victories this season. And the Trojans again minted a new hero.

On Wednesday, in a 17-point comeback against Providence in a First Four game, USC presented to the college basketball world Nick Rakocevic, a big bundle of energy. On Friday the Trojans offered up his polar opposite.

Stewart, a highly mellow, highly athletic, highly streaky shooting guard, was mostly known for his off-court antics and witticisms.

He once compared USC to Harry Potter, sourcing his claim with a detailed, textual explanation. He tweets mainly about the foibles of his relationships. Last month, he picked a fight publicly with the prominent basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy, whose metrics had rated USC as the luckiest team in college basketball. Stewart held the grudge for the rest of the season. (After Friday's game, he asked someone to alert Pomeroy.)

"He's very . . . very . . . entertaining,” Coach Andy Enfield said. “Off the court. Sometimes he's entertaining on the court. And we're not sure who he's going to be entertaining for: Our team or the other team.”

Stewart compared his disposition to San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard’s.

"I mean if it works for you, it works," Stewart said. "No need to burn any testosterone screaming. You know what I mean? I probably don't have that much."

"It's why we love him so much," Rakocevic said. "When he gets serious, though, and when he puts his mind to something, it's scary."

In warmups, Stewart put his mind to a previous meeting with SMU, a USC victory in November. The Mustangs gave up space in the corners and the wings, and he took shots from nowhere else during warmups. Walk-on Kurt Karis noticed his shots looked flat, so Stewart added extra arc.

Stewart carried USC's offense early. He led the team with 22 points. He made six three-pointers. The rest of the team made two.

But USC in the first half had no answers for Semi Ojeleye, who finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds. The Mustangs led by 12 points 12 minutes in. The Trojans called timeout. They cut the deficit to eight by halftime.

"Eight points?" Enfield said later. "That's nothing. We were down 15 points the other night."

USC stormed back on schedule. It tied the score four minutes into the second half. SMU returned fire with a 10-1 run.

USC chipped away. Down two points, the Trojans called a timeout. Mathews had his premonition, but Enfield drew the play for Bennie Boatwright.

SMU's defense shifted. A tipped pass led to a turnover. The movement, point guard Jordan McLaughlin noticed, had drawn Stewart's defender out of the corner.

Stewart had some ideas for where the play should end up on the next possession.

"I wanted to shoot. The. Ball." Stewart said. "Yes. I wanted the last shot of our possession to be me, in the corner. Not the wing. In the corner."

And if he got the ball, what would he think?

"My thought process?" he said. "If I got a hand in my face, shoot it. Because the play was drawn up for me, and I'm not going to miss it. It was simple as that. I had my feet set. My feet literally did not move that whole play."

Stewart's man sunk away. Stewart got the pass. He floated it with arc, just as Karis suggested. It went in.

The game wasn't over yet. USC weathered an SMU free throw, its own missed foul-shot attempt and a hairy final Mustangs shot that bricked off the rim. Or so Stewart had been told, at least.

"I had my eyes closed," he said.

"Now you know why we get down so many games," Enfield said.

In the locker room, Stewart's teammates mobbed him and soaked him with water. They chanted his name. Good vibes.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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