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USC’s second-half rally falls short against No. 14 Arizona

USC guard De'Anthony Melton drives to basket against Arizona during the first half.
(Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

Rarely in the history of basketball has a game swung so dramatically because of a chicken sandwich.

But so it was 30 minutes into USC’s contest with No. 14 Arizona on Thursday evening. As part of a promotion, whenever an opponent misses a pair of free throws in the second half, everyone at the Galen Center wins a free Chick-fil-A sandwich. The crowd was half asleep when Arizona forward Dusan Ristic stepped to the line with 10 minutes left. Then he missed both shots — sandwiches for all. USC still trailed by 21 points, but the crowd went into hysterics.

The energy sparked USC out of a team-wide, three-game shooting slump. On the next possession, Jordan McLaughlin hit a three-pointer. Then he hit another. Next possession, Elijah Stewart hit a three-pointer. Then he hit another.

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Suddenly, with one minute left, USC had pulled within three points. Still, the anemic start — USC trailed by as much as 23 in the second half — had left little room for chance. With 33 seconds left and the shot clock about to expire, chance happened.

Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen heaved a shot from behind the three-point line. It banked in. The USC faithful left full-bellied but disappointed, with a 73-66 loss by the Trojans.

“A heartbreaker,” McLaughlin said.

“The shot clock was running down, we played great defense, we had all the momentum,” USC Coach Andy Enfield said. “I thought we could win the game.”

It was a strangely fitting ending to a strangely tempered game. The last gasp of competence came after a long period of misery. USC (16-4 overall, 3-4 in the Pac-12 Conference) scored 32 points in the final 10 minutes. It scored 34 in the first 30.

The Trojans haven’t reached 40% shooting for three games now, and they bottomed out early Thursday. In the first half, they shot 26%. Total jump shots made: two.

“It is unusual to have a team-wide drought,” Enfield said. “Our concern about it is, we’re getting wide-open looks and layups.”

Arizona (17-2, 6-0) wasn’t much better. Yet it still led an ugly affair at the break, 29-19.

By the game’s end, Stewart, who had made 32% of his shots in his first six conference games — and missed his first five shots Thursday — would finish seven for 13 for 20 points. McLaughlin made five of 12 for 14 points. USC shot 50% in the second half.

“That’s why we actually looked like a good offensive team, for a while,” Enfield said.

Arizona aided USC with sloppy offense and even sloppier second-half defense. Wildcats Coach Sean Miller said his team’s ability to finish “is non-existent.”

“What I’m going to start doing is sitting a couple guys and then everybody’s going to know that the reason they’re sitting is he’s not giving effort, he’s not playing hard enough,” Miller said.

USC still had a chance after Markkanen, who led all scorers with 23 points, made his desperation shot. Trailing by four, guard De’Anthony Melton fouled Ristic hard by the rim. It was initially ruled a personal foul, then upgraded to a flagrant foul, effectively extinguishing USC’s already dim chances.

“I don’t really understand what they called,” Enfield said. “The officials tried their best. There were quite a few calls that I disagreed with, but I’m just a coach.”

The final 10 minutes did, at least, provide some hope that USC is out of its shooting desert. McLaughlin said he hoped it was just an appetizer.

“We see the ball go in a couple times, and we get more confidence,” he said.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand


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