No. 25 USC didn’t have a long time to huddle, but it didn’t need long to draw up a play.
Sunday evening’s officiating crew, maybe out of awe as much as precaution, was reviewing Colorado’s shot-clock-beating three-pointer to confirm that, yes, it had indeed daggered the Trojans with just 43 seconds left. Meanwhile, Coach Andy Enfield was issuing the plan.
Enfield likes to put the ball in the hands of his point guard, Jordan McLaughlin, in such a situation, down by one point. This time, he told USC: Just get the ball in the post to Chimezie Metu.
“It came down to just making the shot,” said Metu, a forward.
Metu stomped a large black Nike on the right block. The entry pass came in. With his back turned in the high post, he spun, hesitated a beat, then lofted a jump hook. He’d hardly missed all game, and he wouldn’t now.
Amid a stretch of miserable shooting, Metu carried USC to a 71-68 victory over the Buffaloes on Sunday evening.
The Trojans (16-3, 3-3 in the Pac-12 Conference) made only 39% of their field goals. They made only three of 19 three-pointers. They surrendered 11 — the most Colorado has made all season. But they stopped their first losing streak of the season at two games and escaped the mountain trip with a split.
Metu’s hook wrapped a bow on the best game of his career. On the very next possession, he forced a defensive stop, then saved a ball going out of bounds.
Without forward Bennie Boatwright, who has sat out 12 games because of a knee injury, Metu has made himself an offensive weapon. He has averaged 16.3 points and 7.7 rebounds in conference play.
On Sunday, he made 11 of 14 shots for 24 points, a career high, and grabbed six rebounds. He scored 20 points in the first half alone, draining hook shots, turnaround jumpers, midrange makes and dunks. After one slam, he flexed his biceps while running up the court. He made nine shots that half. The rest of USC’s team made only four.
The way to win, USC’s guards realized early, was to feed Metu.
“When he starts hitting jump shots and jab-jab, post-up, turnaround, left hook, right hook and he starts screaming, that’s how you know,” guard De’Anthony Melton said. “Once he starts doing that, it’s all over. I don’t know who can guard him.”
Metu said that after he made his first shot, “I knew my team was going to keep coming back to me. The key for me was to take good shots, not contested jump shots or fadeaway jump shots in the post.”
Fouls and the adjustments of a humbled defense, slowed Metu in the second half. USC went more than seven minutes without making a field goal. But USC’s defense protected a lead.
“It would be nice if we could make a few shots and make it easier on ourselves,” Enfield said. “But we didn’t. And somehow we have three conference wins with not shooting the ball great and without Bennie Boatwright.”
The lead cracked on an improbable shot. With 43 seconds left, Colorado hot-potatoed a pass to Xavier Johnson at the end of the shot clock. Johnson caught and heaved in the same motion. Even he seemed surprised it went in.
Metu responded on the next possession.
“It was a big win,” Metu said, even though Colorado (10-8) is now winless in five conference games. USC needed it to stabilize a turbulent start to the conference season.
The Trojans lost to Oregon by 23 points, a game in which they missed seven of 25 layups or dunks. USC lost to California because of an inability to make free throws — just nine of 19. On Thursday, it lost to Utah by 22 points in its worst defensive performance of the season.
Despite that, and despite shooting, which has yet to come around, USC has treaded water in the Pac-12 as it awaits Boatwright’s return.
Now, Melton said, the Trojans are “able to take a deep breath.”
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand