As he dribbled the ball up the court in the final seconds of overtime in Friday night’s Las Vegas Classic final, USC point guard Jordan McLaughlin scanned the Wyoming defense and recognized that he wanted to take the last shot himself and eschew Coach Andy Enfield’s suggestion.
“Coach was calling something,” McLaughlin said. “Something with a ball screen.”
McLaughlin’s improvisation culminated in a twisting, game-winning layup, and the No. 23 Trojans survived the nonconference portion of their schedule unscathed. They should scale the Associated Press rankings further after they sneaked by Wyoming, 94-92, and hoisted McLaughlin onto their backs. He was named tournament MVP for his 22-point performance.
The Trojans’ leading scorer this season, junior Elijah Stewart, was riddled by foul trouble in a 10-minute, three-point first half. He found more success in the second and finished with 10 points. But USC won because of McLaughlin and freshman guards Jonah Mathews and De’Anthony Melton, who scored 26 and 16 points, each season-highs. Mathews had six steals, more than Wyoming’s entire roster.
The Cowboys took an early nine-point lead. After Enfield called a timeout, sophomore forward Chim-ezie Metu dunked, and McLaughlin drew a foul. When Nick Rakocevic made a one-handed tip-in, the Trojans’ rally was on. Mathews drilled two three-pointers bookended by back-to-back Melton dunks. USC led, 22-18, and the Cowboys called timeout.
It had its intended effect. USC slowed, and the score stayed close. The Trojans took a 50-44 lead into halftime, then fell behind to begin the second half. A McLaughlin three-pointer pushed them back ahead.
So it went, back and forth, never far from a tie. Enfield asked for time after a Justin James three-pointer, but James soon drilled another for a six-point lead. The fourth-year coach later became enraged when a violation was not called when Wyoming was forced into the backcourt to recover a blocked three-pointer.
“Tom, that was two points,” Enfield told official Tom O’Neill.
They nearly decided the game. Down a point with five minutes left, the Trojans stole the ball and then chased down the court. A Stewart tip-in put USC back ahead. Wyoming responded, and, soon, so did the Trojans. They were up one when Mathews intercepted a pass and made a breakaway layup.
It was tied, 82-82, with 100 seconds to play, when Metu fouled out of the game.
Stewart penetrated the lane and found the net. Wyoming turned the ball over. McLaughlin missed a jumper, but Melton rebounded it, and Stewart went to the free-throw line. He made one and missed one. Wyoming turned the ball over again, but Melton missed the front end of a one-and-one, and the Cowboys’ Hayden Dalton nailed a three-pointer with two seconds remaining to force overtime, 85-85.
The teams traded baskets, and the score was tied going into the final minute, when McLaughlin took over. Wyoming nearly won it outright with a buzzer-beating three-pointer that rimmed out.
“It was a long game,” McLaughlin said. “It was a hard-fought game.”
The Trojans (13-0) hope to have Bennie Boatwright back at some point during Pac-12 play, but their undefeated performance beforehand should give them wiggle room. They also hope to rise in the rankings.
“I don’t really count being in the 20s as being ranked,” Stewart said Thursday after the Trojans’ victory over Missouri State. “That’s kind of just like filler spots. Until we can get into those teens, then we can start talking about something.”