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Loss leaves longing for what could have been

What a shame that such an effective USC game plan, one that nullified Tyler Hansbrough and created wide-open shots for 28 minutes Friday, apparently didn’t include the words “box out” or “keep cool.”

USC, the better team for much of the night, went down because it couldn’t keep North Carolina off the boards. It didn’t help that Coach Tim Floyd picked up a seal-the-deal technical foul when USC was still within six in the final minute.

So despite all of the good that happened, there’s something unfulfilling, a sense that this didn’t have to end here, right now, with a final score of North Carolina 74, USC 64.

It had been a feel-good season for the USC basketball squad, one that began with low expectations but finished with a school-record 25 victories, the last over fourth-seeded Texas and superstar Kevin Durant. In between came the official signing of recruit O.J. Mayo.

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“The environment is starting to change around SC,” forward Nick Young said. “Everybody’s more happy.”

That would start with guard Gabe Pruitt, who said, “We showed a lot of character. I can’t do anything but be happy.”

It includes Athletic Director Mike Garrett, who left the locker room with a smile and said, “We’ve been to the mountaintop. We belong here now.”

They didn’t reach to unprecedented heights. The 2001 team beat second-seeded Kentucky to reach the Elite Eight. This team had another traditional basketball powerhouse -- and a No. 1-seeded team at that -- on its, um, heels. This would have been the biggest NCAA tournament victory in the history of the program.

Instead there’s a nagging feeling that there should have been more, that they could have beaten North Carolina and would have had a good shot against Georgetown, which went down to the wire against Vanderbilt in the first game at the Meadowlands.

The Trojans got just about any shot they wanted against North Carolina in the first half. They drove or made crisp passes to score in the lane, they penetrated and dished out to create open three-point shots. They shot 50% in the first half. Plenty of Taj Gibson taking it to the hoop and Pruitt scoring in transition.

Meanwhile, North Carolina couldn’t get anything going in its half-court offense. Even though Hansbrough shed that plastic face mask during the last round, he still didn’t have any breathing room. The Trojans surrounded him with double- and triple-teams every time he got the ball. So North Carolina ended up casting three-pointers and missing -- sometimes without even catching the rim.

“Southern Cal, with Tim, they want to make your nonscorers shoot the ball and the guys that don’t shoot it as well take more shots than the guys that do,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. “It’s very sound fundamentally.”

The Tar Heels shot 38% in the first half and hung in the game only because they converted seven offensive rebounds into 14 second-chance points. That was just a taste of what was coming in the second half, where it reached the point that North Carolina’s most effective play was a missed shot.

In the run that wiped out a 12-point deficit, five of their seven baskets came on tip-ins or follow-up shots. The finale, unbelievably, was a missed fastbreak dunk by Wayne Ellington that was put back in by Danny Green.

The Tar Heels had the lead and they never gave it back. They were reenergized, playing the type of defense Williams demands, forcing the Trojans to cough up the ball. And they were rebounding.

The Tar Heels out-rebounded USC, 46-39, including 20-10 on the offensive glass.

The Tar Heels put on a box-out clinic. You know the drill where the rebound has to hit the floor before anyone can touch it? The Tar Heels decided to run it in the final four minutes of the game. When a Lodrick Stewart three-pointer rimmed out, the Carolina players sealed off their men, the ball bounced once, a Tar Heel grabbed it and they went off the other way. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that happen in a game before.

I’m also searching the memory banks to recall the last time I saw a coach get a technical foul so late in an NCAA tournament game that wasn’t completely out of reach. It happened with 49 seconds left when Gibson received his fifth foul for an illegal screen. A shaky call, sure, but no cause for Floyd to throw his coaching notes on the court when a couple of missed free throws and a three-pointer could have brought the Trojans to within three.

“Just disappointed,” Floyd said. “Wanted to keep playing. Disappointed with Taj’s situation, he was fouling out of the game. A technical is a part of the game. It just happened. I can’t comment on the call. Or his fourth foul. So you sit there and you exorcise frustration from time to time. Which I did.”

Exorcise it back in the locker room. Kick a table. Don’t give away two extra points when your team is trying to extend the game.

Don’t put such a bad ending to a season in which so much went right.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.


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