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Column: USC and Andy Enfield must ride second magical March shot into NCAA tournament run

USC's Tahj Eaddy celebrates with teammates as UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. walks off the court.
USC’s Tahj Eaddy, center, celebrates with teammates as UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, walks off the court after Eaddy’s game-winning three-pointer in the Trojans’ 64-63 victory Saturday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

It was deja wow.

It was March Madness turned miraculous.

It was one shining mirror.

You’re not going to believe this, and, judging from both the joyous howling and stunned silence that shared the Pauley Pavilion court, you’re not alone.

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For a second consecutive year, USC beat UCLA with a three-pointer on the final shot in the final seconds on the final Saturday of the regular season by a Trojans player wearing No. 2.

That last paragraph is not a misprint. Not one word of it.

“It is kind of ironic,” Trojans coach Andy Enfield said Saturday after his team’s 64-63 victory.

Ironic? Try, insane.

After Tahj Eaddy caught the inbounds pass from Ethan Anderson in the corner and flung up a shot while falling on his butt, the rest was reminiscent of last season at Galen Center when Jonah Mathews threw up a desperation heave from the top of the key.

Swish. Swish.

Game. Game.

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“It’s funny for that to happen,” Eaddy said. “It’s funny how things come full circle like that.”

Funny? Try, freaky.

Eaddy should have been called for traveling moments earlier after sliding across the floor. UCLA was bitten when both Jules Bernard and Jaime Jaquez Jr. missed front-end free throws in the final 44 seconds. Without injured leading scorer Johnny Juzang, the Bruins blew a 13-point lead with a third consecutive late-game collapse, scoring just once in the final five minutes.

And, oh yeah, Anderson only threw the ball to Eaddy when he couldn’t get it to giant Evan Mobley on a planned alley-oop.

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“We’re fortunate to have a chance at the end,” Enfield said.

Fortunate? Try, magical.

Suddenly a Trojans team that has lost three of its last six games can win its first outright Pac-12 Conference title in 60 years if Oregon loses at Oregon State on Sunday.

Tahj Eaddy sank a three-pointer off an inbounds pass with 1.4 seconds remaining as USC extended its winning streak over UCLA in a 64-63 victory.

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And, just as wondrously, the Trojans are looking like a team built for a deep March run.

“We hope so,” Enfield said. “It comes down to how you execute and how you defend.”

It also comes down to how you coach. In Enfield’s eighth season at USC, with this gifted, veteran and now seemingly destined group, his coaching should be under the strongest of microscopes.

He has a losing conference record and has led his Trojans teams to just two NCAA appearances, never advancing past the first weekend. If he can’t show progress now, then when? Judging by the history of at least one recent USC boss, Enfield must take this mojo and ride it to at least the Sweet 16 or risk losing his job.

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Remember Henry Bibby? He also coached eight full seasons. He made three tournament appearances and took a team to the Elite Eight. But four games into his ninth season, he was fired.

This team is not as loaded as Bibby’s elite team of 20 years ago — Sam Clancy, Brian Scalabrine, Desmon Farmer, Jeff Trepagnier — but it is composed of a winning tournament formula.

USC coach Andy Enfield, right, talks with guard Tahj Eaddy during the first half March 6, 2021.
USC coach Andy Enfield talks with guard Tahj Eaddy in the first half Saturday. Enfield has not advanced past the first weekend of NCAA tournament play as Trojans coach.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

You need one star and a handful of veteran leaders who have seemingly been in college forever. The Trojans have precisely that.

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The one star, of course, is future top-five NBA draft pick Mobley, who on Saturday blocked three shots and had 11 rebounds.

The veteran leaders are Eaddy, Drew Peterson and Chevez Goodwin, all transfers who on Saturday made big contributions down the stretch.

Peterson made two three-pointers to pull the Trojans closer, the tough Goodwin was all over the floor and even made a late free throw, and then Eaddy won the game.

“You always want someone on the court that can stabilize things, bring energy, bring confidence without even scoring the ball,” Eaddy said.

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USC again struggled from the free-throw line, including key misses late, but still beat rival UCLA when Tahj Eaddy hit a game-winning three-pointer.

The Trojans have those kinds of players. They have that kind of potential. They beat Oregon by 14 points just two weeks ago. They won 13 of 14 games in one stretch earlier this season. They entered Saturday’s game with a 16 NET rating, the highest in the Pac-12.

Believe it, this is a second-weekend team. The question remains, for this particular group, is Enfield a second-weekend coach?

“This team could win some games in the NCAA tournament, but at the same time, we’ve had games this year where we just didn’t make shots and we’ve struggled,” Enfield said. “Nothing is taken for granted. This is a team that plays at a very high level when it plays hard.”

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Inspiring them to play hard, that’s his job. Can he do that on a consistent level from now until April? He seemed to succeed with last year’s team, but, after the Trojans leaped into the Pac-12 tournament on the back of Mathews, that season abruptly ended with the pandemic.

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Highlights from USC’s 64-63 victory over UCLA on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion.

Will they take advantage of this surreal second buzzer-beater? Now that they have a chance to build upon this second stroke of magic, will they?

“If you would’ve asked us, would you take 21-6, 15-5 in our league, I would have said sign us up now,” Enfield said of his rebuilt team.

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But the building is completed. The talent is there. The time is now. And here’s guessing athletic director Mike Bohn, who seems to care more about basketball than many of his predecessors, is watching. Bohn once helped make hoops relevant at football-mad Colorado, and he’s likely to expect the same progress here.

Enfield joked that Saturday’s desperation game-winning play was called, “Hail Trojan, instead of Hail Mary.”

It was the unlikeliest of moments. Now Andy Enfield needs about three more weeks of them.


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