This was Bennie Boatwright’s game to win, and everybody in Gill Coliseum knew it Thursday night. Most importantly for the Trojans, Boatwright knew it too.
The score was tied again nearing the end of overtime, and Boatwright received a pass on the baseline. He took a hard step, as if he was going to drive, but suddenly pulled up for a jumper. A swish, a career-high 37 points and a two-point lead.
On the other end, Oregon State guard Ethan Thompson got open from three-point range and banged it in, taking the lead right back. It had been like this all night for Boatwright. No matter what USC’s senior star did, he was asked to do more.
On the next possession, Boatwright got the ball at the top of the key in a flashback to the closing seconds of the second half, when he had come up short on a game-winning jumper at the buzzer. This time, he created space with a step-back move and let it fly once again from three-point range. Another miss.
Oregon State, playing without its best player, Tres Tinkle, got just enough from a resurgent cast led by Stephen Thompson Jr.’s 34 points to best Boatwright and the Trojans 79-74.
USC (9-7, 2-1 Pac-12) lost its conference road opener in the most heartbreaking fashion imaginable.
Boatwright, who hit 14 of 24 shots, missed the two biggest.
“First shot, a shot I shoot all the time, shoot thousands of them,” Boatwright said. “But, short. Everything felt good. Next one, had a look at it, in and out. In and out, you can’t do anything about. It’s part of basketball. I feel confident in those shots.
“I’m not going to think about it at all. Going to wake up the next morning, the sun’s going to come up, life’s good, I’m alive, my people are all right. We have another opportunity on Sunday. We’re going to move on.”
Trailing 76-74, the Trojans had a chance to tie the score or take the lead again after Boatwright’s missed three-pointer. Freshman wing Kevin Porter Jr. took the ball hard to the basket against a group of Beavers, including the best shot blocker in the league, Kylor Kelley. Kelley blocked Porter’s layup attempt.
“I’m very disappointed in myself,” said Porter, who acknowledged that his injured thigh limited him from elevating on his layup. “I couldn’t lead my team to a win. Just very emotional right now.”
With Porter healthy enough to play real minutes for the first time since he bruised his thigh Nov. 22, the Trojans knew they were going to get a boost off the bench that only he could provide.
But when it was announced before tipoff that Tinkle was not going to play because of an ankle injury he suffered in the Beavers’ big win last week at Oregon, the scales truly seemed like they had tipped to USC.
Porter, who had practiced only twice after a six-week layoff, said that he would not hesitate to be aggressive offensively Thursday. Sure enough, he swished his first shot, a smooth step-back three-pointer that came with a message behind it. Porter backpedaled to the other end, nodding his head all the way. He’d add another bucket in transition, helping to fuel a 10-0 USC run that put the Trojans up 20-11. They would push the lead to 25-14, and you couldn’t help but wonder: Was this who the Trojans could have been all along if they hadn’t fought one injury after another all season? They quickly squashed any potential for lasting goodwill.
From there, Oregon State went on an 18-0 run. In the second half, the Trojans climbed all the way back behind the best game of Boatwright’s USC career. That it came in a loss was something he grappled with.
As Boatwright walked to the bus, three USC fans awaited him and one asked him to stop for a picture.
“You’re my favorite Trojan ever,” he said.
Boatwright posed with the fan, and they both signaled ‘V’ for victory.