For the first 20 minutes of its nonconference basketball game against Nebraska on Saturday, USC played nearly fundamentally perfect.
The next 20 minutes? Not so much.
After building a 20-point lead, the Trojans squandered all of it and more in a 60-58 loss.
Nebraska hadn’t come back to win from as big of a deficit since its 87-77 overtime win against Kansas State in 1997.
It was finalized when USC freshman guard Maurice Jones missed a three-point shot at the buzzer.
This game was part of the soon-to-be-discontinued Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series and marks the second consecutive close defeat for USC against Nebraska after a 51-48 home loss last season.
The Trojans built their lead by strong defense and crisp passing that led to open shots, most of which USC made, shooting 56.7% in the first half.
“We just weren’t making shots, and they were making everything,” Nebraska Coach Doc Sadler said.
But when leading, 37-17, with 1 minute, 49 seconds before halftime, USC junior forward Nikola Vucevic missed an open layup, and Nebraska responded with a 9-2 run to end the half, foreshadowing the avalanche that came after intermission. With USC leading by 16 early in the second half, the Cornhuskers cruised on runs of 17-3 and 10-4 to earn their first lead, 56-55, with 4:47 left.
“They just took all the momentum,” said USC senior guard Donte Smith, who, with senior forward Alex Stepheson, led the Trojans with 14 points.
Both Nebraska runs were aided by USC turnovers, poor shot selection, dumb fouls and the like.
“We let the emotion of the game catch up with us, and then we made bad plays and forced plays,” USC Coach Kevin O’Neill said.
Overall, USC shot just eight for 29 in the second half (27.6%), including missing eight of nine three-point tries.
Nebraska, meanwhile, shot 14 for 24 (58.3%) in the final 20 minutes, but O’Neill called its short run to end the half the game changer.
“They do their job and get it to 13 at the half,” he said, “and then they carried that momentum into the second half — and we didn’t really do that.”
Vucevic shot just two for 15, scoring a season-low five points. Jones scored 10 points, seven in the first half, and had five assists and four rebounds.
Jones called the first half USC’s finest to date.
“That’s the first time we came out strong all year, but we didn’t finish the game,” he said. “We’ve got to learn how to play like we came out in the first half for the full 40 minutes.”
As the Trojans continue on to Fort Worth, Texas, to face TCU on Monday, they’ll carry that reminder, which was painfully learned here.