Coaches always talk about how their teams threw a game away. Well, USC almost did it in the literal sense Thursday night at McKale Center.
USC was protecting a 64-63 lead against Arizona with two seconds remaining when forward Wayne Carlander inbounded the ball behind the Trojans' basket.
He threw what USC Coach Stan Morrison later called a "94-m.p.h. fastball," and it didn't find the intended receiver, Derrick Dowell.
The ball went out of bounds without being touched by a Trojan. No time went off the clock, and the Wildcats could then inbound the ball under the USC basket.
It was a last-second reprieve for Arizona. But Dowell intercepted freshman guard Craig McMillan's pass intended for center Pete Williams as time ran out.
So USC won another tough Pac-10 game on the road, 64-63, and improved its conference record to 3-1, 9-4 overall. Arizona is 2-2 and 11-5. The Trojans still share second place in the league.
USC won only one road game in a 11-20 season last year. The Trojans have already won two this season, having beaten Oregon, 63-59, Jan. 5 at Eugene, Ore.
It was an uphill struggle all the way Thursday night and USC had to offset the hot shooting of Arizona forward Eddie Smith, who scored 28 points, 20 in the first half.
"Arizona must have thought they died and went to heaven," Morrison said, referring to Carlander's errant pass.
Then, the USC coach blamed himself for not instructing Carlander to throw a high trajectory pass near the end of the game.
"We wanted a moon shot," Morrison said, "but Wayne threw a fast ball that almost killed an Arizona tuba player."
It seemed that the Trojans had put the Wildcats away when Carlander broke the Arizona press and fired a pass to point guard Larry Friend, who then relayed the ball to forward Kevin Steward.
Steward scored on a slam with 13 seconds left to provide USC with a 64-61 lead.
The Wildcats then missed a shot, but on USC's possession, Friend was called for traveling and Arizona had another opportunity to stay alive.
McMillan inbounded the ball to Williams, who scored on a short lob shot with just two seconds remaining. Arizona immediately called time out but its situation seemed hopeless.
Then, Carlander, a highly regarded pitcher at Ocean View High School, unleashed his fast ball down the center of the court and over the reach of Dowell.
But Dowell, a sophomore forward, made the game-saving play.
"I knew they'd do the same thing (try to get the ball to Williams) because they didn't have any more timeouts and couldn't set up another play," said the sophomore forward. "And Coach Morrison did the right thing by not calling a timeout to give them a chance"
Morrison said he thought his kids would be smart enough to look for the inbounds pass to Williams.
"And," he added, "Dowell obviously was."
Morrison got a big lift from two of his reserves, guard Glenn Smith and Steward. Smith was 3 for 3 from the field, while Steward was 5 for 7, 12 points.
Steward was also thrust into a clutch situation when center Clayton Olivier had to leave the game with 1:27 remaining.
Olivier was driving to the basket when he was fouled. He was inadvertently tripped by forward David Haskin and the 6-10 center hit the floor hard.
He clutched his stomach in pain and was finally helped off the court.
"I fell on somebody's knees and the wind was just knocked out of me. You ought to see my stomach. It's all red," said the red-haired center.
The players then took a quick vote and elected Steward, a 6-5 junior, to replace Olivier on the foul line. It was a one-and-one situation and Steward made the first free throw but missed the second.
Still, he gave USC a 58-57 lead and the Trojans never trailed again.
Steward hasn't played much until recently and he was only 2 for 8 from the line coming into Thursday night's game.
"I know I had a bad free-throw percentage, but I'm just glad the coach and the players had confidence in me," he said.
So the Trojans eventually came through in a pressure situation. They won before a partisan crowd of 11,062. Arizona Coach Lute Olson says that his home court could develop into a "pit" like McArthur Court in Eugene or Gill Coliseum in Corvallis, Ore.
"I don't know if we felt we could win a game like this last year," said Morrison, adding that his freshman-sophomore-oriented team last season is now maturing.
Arizona led, 29-27, at halftime. USC kept it close when Steward buried a bomb from the corner as time ran out.
The game was tied four times in the second half before Steward put USC ahead to stay with his free throw.
Arizona's Smith was virtually unstoppable in the first half. He was getting inside the USC defense for short, twisting jump shots and was 8 for 8 from the field in the first 20 minutes.
Wingman Ron Holmes led USC with 18 points, while Carlander had 13. Olivier, a senior, equaled a career high by grabbing 10 rebounds.
Morrison elected to go with a smaller, faster lineup most of the game with the exception of Olivier to offset Arizona, a quick, but small team.
USC now takes its road show to Tempe, Ariz., Saturday afternoon, meeting Arizona State. The Trojans haven't fared well there, losing five in a row and seven of the last nine.
But, so far, the Trojans have performed more than adequately away from home.