Jaylen Hands started overtime on the bench and was UCLA’s third option as it sought a basket that could extend a one-point lead over its biggest rival.
In the timeout huddle, Bruins interim coach Murry Bartow prioritized the possibilities. As his team prepared to inbound the ball against USC with only five seconds left on the shot clock Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion, Bartow’s top choice was to get the ball to center Moses Brown. His second choice was to find forward Kris Wilkes curling in from the wing.
Hands, the third choice, initially looked like he was not going to be involved in the play. Wilkes took the inbounds pass and looked to drive as Hands retreated well beyond the three-point line.
But as Wilkes took three dribbles on the perimeter, he found himself sandwiched between two Trojans defenders. He fired a pass to Hands, who caught the ball above his head and immediately launched it toward the basket from about 30 feet out over the outstretched arms of a leaping Jonah Mathews.
As the ball fell through the net, the Bruins’ plans had gone perfectly awry.
“Well, it wasn’t that,” Bartow said wryly when asked about the play call.
Hands hopped in glee as he celebrated the three-pointer with 21 seconds left that secured UCLA’s 93-88 victory before its first sellout crowd of the season, having become the most unlikely of heroes.
“To be honest,” he said afterward, “I still don’t know what it feels like.”
The Trojans could immediately categorize their devastation after a three-point barrage in which they took 50 shots from beyond the arc and made 19, both records for a Bruins opponent.
“I just put my head down and said, ‘Come on, are you serious?’” Mathews said. “I mean, good shot, but just wow.”
It was the latest sensational showing from Hands, who followed his 27-point rampage in the second half against Oregon last week with a strong-across-the-board effort. His 21 points, 10 assists, zero turnovers and miracle shot nudged UCLA (16-13 overall, 9-7 Pac-12 Conference) to a third consecutive victory and into sole possession of fifth place in the conference standings, half a game behind fourth-place Oregon State and Utah.
“I think we could do some things in the Pac-12 tournament, hopefully do some things in March,” said UCLA guard Jules Bernard, whose 16 points included a one-handed floater in the lane with 3:37 left in overtime that put his team ahead to stay.
Brown finished with 14 rebounds and 10 points and Wilkes added 16 points after missing two days of practice and being so sick that Bartow was unsure if he could play against the Trojans.
USC (15-14, 8-8) fell into a three-way tie for sixth place with Arizona and Stanford after guard Kevin Porter Jr. went down with a sprained ankle in the second half and hot-shooting forward Bennie Boatwright cooled late in regulation.
Boatwright made seven of 17 three-pointers on the way to 25 points, 15 rebounds and six assists. But he missed two three-pointers in the final minute of regulation that could have given the Trojans the lead, including one at the buzzer.
Boatwright’s three-pointer with 53 seconds left in overtime pulled USC to within 89-88. He blocked Hands’ drive with 28 seconds to go and five seconds left on the shot clock, sending the ball out of the bounds and the Bruins to their fateful timeout huddle.
Hands had started the extra period on the bench because Bartow wanted to go with the defensive unit that had gotten the stop to end regulation.
“We kind of wanted to hang with that group,” Bartow said before later referencing Hands’ primary deficiency. “Defensively, we need him to be better and he knows that.”
Hands seemed to support his coach’s decision to sit him for the first 2:19 of overtime before subbing him in for David Singleton, whose three-pointer had just given the Bruins an 87-82 lead.
“If you’re going to just keep going with them for momentum and he believes they’re the best defensive team,” Hands said, “that’s what we have to do and I have to get better at that end, so that’s what I have to say about that.”
There’s no question that Hands is part of UCLA’s best offensive unit. After his improbable shot went in, Wilkes pointed at him as the roars of the 12,427 fans reached their most deafening pitch.
“Hell of a shot, man,” Wilkes said.
Hands departed the game once more with 17 seconds left as Bartow went with his strongest defensive unit, which secured two more stops when Mathews missed a jumper and Elijah Weaver a layup.
But Hands was central to the celebration after coming to the fore in a most unexpected way, even if he did leave his teammates to do most of the talking about his heroics.
“It was amazing,” Wilkes said, “definitely amazing.”
Thursday at Colorado, 6 p.m. PST, Coors Events Center, ESPN2 — The Buffaloes have won three consecutive games against the Bruins, including an 84-73 triumph at Pauley Pavilion last month in which Shane Gatling made seven of nine three-point shots and scored 28 points.
Thursday at Utah, 7 p.m. PST, Jon M. Huntsman Center, FS1 — The Utes came into Galen Center on Feb. 6 and shocked USC 77-70, starting a three-game losing streak for the Trojans. Utah guard Sedrick Barefield, who averages 16.7 points a game, has turned it on in conference play.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch