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Second place on the line

Times Staff Writer

It seemed an unlikely scenario only two months ago, two supposedly second-tier teams meeting in the final game of the regular season to determine second place in the Pacific 10 Conference.

But here are USC and Washington State, the conference’s biggest overachievers, playing this afternoon at Beasley Coliseum with more on the line than a feel-good ending to their seasons.

Although the Cougars have already clinched at least a tie for second place in the Pac-10, the winner of today’s game will claim the No. 2 seeding in the conference tournament because of tiebreaker rules that favor the Trojans.

The second-seeded team receives a more favorable draw in the conference tournament, playing the winner of a first-round game between seventh-seeded Washington and 10th-seeded Arizona State on Thursday in a quarterfinal at Staples Center; it also avoids the possibility of meeting conference champion UCLA before Saturday’s title game.

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“It would be another great steppingstone to getting to where we eventually want to get, which is the conference championship,” USC Coach Tim Floyd said. “But just because you want something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. It’s going to be a difficult task over here because it would be a great accomplishment for them as well given where their preseason projections were.”

The media picked Washington State to finish 10th in the Pac-10, four spots below USC. The Cougars have exceeded expectations by controlling tempo and playing with tremendous poise, averaging a conference-low 10.3 turnovers.

“It’s kind of like a better Arizona State team,” Trojans junior swingman Nick Young said. “They keep fighting, keep fighting, keep running their stuff and somehow come out with a win. We have to keep our intensity up the whole way through the game.”

USC will be attempting to avoid its first consecutive losses of the season and to avenge a 58-55 loss to the Cougars on Dec. 30 in which Kyle Weaver’s short running jump shot with four seconds left provided the go-ahead basket. Young tried to race the ball up the court in the final seconds but was called for charging, ending the Trojans’ hopes.

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Sophomore forward Keith Wilkinson, making a rare start Thursday against Washington, displayed a willingness to shoot that had been absent all season.

His fearlessness resulted in a career-high nine points on four-for-six shooting in 29 minutes.

“It’s just a result of a guy getting more confidence, playing more, not going in there and worried about missing a shot and coming out,” Floyd said. “We have never told him not to shoot.”

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Junior guard Gabe Pruitt scored the 1,000th point of his career against the Huskies.

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TODAY

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at Washington State, 4 p.m.,

FSN Prime Ticket

Site -- Beasley Coliseum, Pullman, Wash.

Radio -- 710.

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Records -- USC 21-9 overall, 11-6 Pac-10; Washington State 23-6, 12-5.

Update -- USC might want to model its approach after UCLA, which had great success inside Thursday during its 53-45 victory over Washington State. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Lorenzo Mata and Alfred Aboya combined for 20 points.

ben.bolch@latimes.com


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