As the crowd thinned and the deficit mounted for USC in the second half Saturday afternoon at the Honda Center, it appeared to be the perfect setup for a seldom-used player such as walk-on guard Chris Penrose to find his way onto the court.
And there was Penrose checking into the game in the final seconds, all right -- with his Trojans safely on their way to victory.
In a stunning reversal of fortune that seemed to disappoint the remnants of a crowd made up mostly of UCLA fans, USC rallied from a 20-point second-half deficit for a 74-65 victory over George Washington in the second game of the Wooden Classic.
Even legendary Bruins coach John Wooden appeared impressed when he clutched a courtside microphone and called it "one of the finest comebacks I've seen in a long time."
It was USC's biggest rally since a 20-point comeback in a 70-67 victory over Brigham Young on Dec. 23, 2000.
The Trojans overcame a turnover-laden first half in which they went 9 minutes 59 seconds in one stretch without scoring and a sloppy start to the second half. A dunk by forward Dokun Akingbade gave the Colonials a 38-18 lead with 18:15 remaining.
But it was USC, behind a 58-point second-half effort, that was just getting started. The Trojans (6-2) came back with interior might from freshman forward Taj Gibson, who had 13 of his 17 rebounds in the second half. They came back with fire from freshman point guard Daniel Hackett, who scored all 18 of his points after halftime and made a spectacular between-the-legs save while running out of bounds.
They came back with scoring from senior guard Lodrick Stewart, who tallied 19 of his 21 points after intermission. And they came back with defense from freshman forward Kyle Austin, whose unlikely lockdown effort on Carl Elliott held the senior guard to two points in the second half on one-for-10 shooting.
"It wasn't about the adjustments," Coach Tim Floyd said. "It was about some guys that were embarrassed and should have been embarrassed by the way they played in the first half."
Floyd acknowledged an unpleasant scene in the locker room after a first half in which the Trojans shot 27.8%, committed 11 turnovers and trailed, 29-16.
"I just asked them, 'What offense do you want to run?' " Floyd said. "Because it really didn't matter. We can put out any play we want to put out and it doesn't matter if you're going to throw it in the seats."
It was more of the same in the first few minutes of the second half as the Colonials (6-2) extended their advantage to 20 points on two occasions.
But the Trojans never wavered on defense and started to play with poise on offense, with Hackett driving to the basket, Stewart making jump shots and Gibson converting inside or drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line.
USC made 27 of 31 free throws (87.1%) in the second half, including an 11-for-11 effort from Hackett.
"I saw everybody mad in the locker room at halftime," Hackett said.
The Trojans used a 12-0 run to cut the deficit to 38-30 when Stewart made a pull-up jumper with 14:49 left, but the doubters still abounded. It was about that time when a UCLA fan sitting behind the baseline loudly reminded USC players of their season-opening loss to South Carolina -- and that the Gamecocks had lost to UC Irvine.
But the Trojans were undeterred, pulling ahead, 53-52, on two free throws by Gibson with 3:56 remaining. Stewart then made a three-pointer from the corner and George Washington's Travis King missed a three-point shot, continuing a game-long trend for the Colonials, who shot only 36.4%.
"There's a reason why no one's getting 70 points on them," Coach Karl Hobbs said of USC, which has held all eight opponents under 40% shooting.
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This was the second time in the 13-year history of the Wooden Classic that UCLA and USC both played in the event and the first time they swept the games:
* USC 65, Utah 60 (USC's leading scorer: Brian Scalabrine, 18)
* Georgia Tech 72, UCLA 67 (UCLA's leading scorer: Jason Kapono, 18)
* UCLA 65, Texas A&M; 62
* USC 74, George Washington 65
Source: Los Angeles Times