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USC feels sense of belonging

Times Staff Writer

The fans streamed out of Spokane Arena on Friday night as a slew of walk-ons and seldom-used benchwarmers paraded onto the court for USC.

The final five minutes of the Trojans’ first NCAA tournament appearance in five years were uneventful, just as the team had hoped they would be.

With the three other fifth-seeded teams in the tournament already having advanced, USC was trying to ensure that no 12th-seeded team upset its first-round opponent for the first time since 2000.

The Trojans accomplished the feat with a smothering defensive effort during a 77-60 victory over Arkansas in the East Regional -- their first tournament victory since their Elite Eight run in 2001.

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“It’s as good a defense as we’ve played this year,” said USC Coach Tim Floyd, whose team held the Razorbacks to three-for-20 shooting from behind the three-point arc and 36.8% shooting overall. “I thought we were very solid on that end.”

The Trojans (24-11) will play fourth-seeded Texas (25-9) at 2:30 p.m. Sunday after tying the school record for victories and shaking off some of the memories of their 24-point loss to Oregon in the Pacific 10 Conference tournament title game.

USC came out somewhat jittery and fell behind by eight points in the first six minutes before collecting itself on the defensive end. A steal by junior guard Gabe Pruitt led to a layup, and a block by junior swingman Nick Young resulted on a three-pointer by senior guard Lodrick Stewart.

“I was out there a little nervous in the beginning because it was the first time playing in an environment like this,” said Young, who finished with a game-high 20 points. “After the first five minutes we started getting it going and things started to flow for us.”

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Arkansas (21-14) was unable to capitalize on its size advantage in part because of an inspired defensive effort by USC freshman forward Taj Gibson and in part because forward Charles Thomas, the Razorbacks’ third-leading scorer, was hobbled the entire game by a sprained ankle suffered last week in the Southeastern Conference tournament title game.

“Coach stressed to us if we wanted to win this game we had to play defense and get as many rebounds as we could on the defensive end,” said Gibson, who had 18 points, three blocked shots and eight rebounds, leading USC to a 39-26 advantage on the boards.

The Razorbacks made one final run at the outset of the second half after junior swingman Sonny Weems told his teammates, “Let’s go, man! Let’s go.”

Weems finished with 13 points and freshman guard Patrick Beverley, who earlier in the week had predicted Arkansas would reach the Sweet 16 “easily,” scored 15 while playing most of the second half in foul trouble.

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The Razorbacks scored six of the first eight points after halftime to pull within 40-33 before Pruitt made a three-point basket and back-to-back USC steals led to two free throws by Young and a dunk by Gibson. All of a sudden the Trojans led, 47-33, and Arkansas could make it no closer than an 11-point game the rest of the way.

It was an inspired effort by a group of Trojans who were eager to make the most of their first postseason experience and advance in memory of slain guard Ryan Francis, whose mother, Paulette, sat in the USC cheering section.

“It’s going to be in the notebook of my life that I won a game in the NCAA tournament,” said Stewart, who had eight points.

Floyd was also looking for some scrapbook material after a 10-year absence from the NCAA tournament following his travels through the NBA. The coach said he didn’t know what to expect from a roster full of players who hadn’t been here before.

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But perhaps he should have realized that the Trojans tend to play their best after a loss. They are 10-1 this season following a defeat and played Friday as if the blowout against Oregon bothered them to their core.

“It might not have helped the players but it helped me understand that we couldn’t guard anybody,” Floyd said. “I don’t think we shot a basketball this week. All we did was defend.”

ben.bolch@latimes.com


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