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USC wipes out 17-point deficit to defeat Providence, 75-71

USC forward Chimezie Metu reacts after scoring on a dunk against Providence in the second half.
(Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

March is a good time to make an introduction, and 30 minutes into an improbable USC comeback victory on Wednesday, 75-71 over Providence, the college basketball world met Nick Rakocevic.

The best way to watch Rakocevic is to watch his teammates. Halfway through the second half of the NCAA tournament “First Four,” two of his best teammates, forwards Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright, were on the bench, watching with visibly surging enthusiasm.

Rakocevic, a 6-foot-11 double shot of espresso from Chicago, had been trying to perfect a specific move against the pair countless times in practice. It had never worked in a game. As they looked on against Providence, Rakocevic jabbed, pumped up, scooped under and then shot.

“He finally did it,” a grinning Boatwright said after.

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Metu jumped up. The whole bench erupted. Boatwright waved a towel, “like I was the last player on the bench,” he said.

In an unlikely win from 17 points down, which avenged USC’s crushing loss to Providence in last season’s tournament opener and sent the Trojans to Tulsa, Okla., to play Southern Methodist, there were players who scored more points than Rakocevic. There were players — most of them, in fact — who played more minutes.

But all anybody wanted to talk about in a relieved USC locker room was Rakocevic, his energy and his 13 minutes of ecstasy that saved USC’s season.

When he entered, USC was down 12. When he exited, USC was up five.

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He scored only nine points and had just one rebound but recorded the best plus-minus in the game: plus-10. There was energy, like a puppy after a nap.

“This win’s probably his,” guard Elijah Stewart said. “Honestly, we should be at the crib right now.”

Statistically, Rakocevic has been a rather quiet presence for USC this season. Otherwise, Rakocevic has been anything but.

“A big 12-year-old,” said walk-on Kurt Karis, who played basketball against Rakocevic during a childhood in Illinois. “He always wants to play around.”

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“Fearless, man,” point guard Jordan McLaughlin said. “He’s from Chicago.”

Often, USC needs the jolt. USC’s other regulars are laid back, mirroring Coach Andy Enfield’s relaxed demeanor off the court. Rakocevic sticks out.

“We’re a very chill team,” guard Jonah Mathews said. “He’s the picker-upper.”

USC was too chill early against the Friars, which was nothing new. USC has now come back to win from 10 points down or more 12 times this season. But the margin was alarming.

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The Friars used a 15-0 run and led at halftime, 44-29. They flummoxed USC with a zone. They found space in USC’s on the perimeter, where they made eight of 15 first-half attempts.

At the half, the coaching staff performed a familiar ritual: lighting into a team that lacked fire.

“I think it’s just — give Coach a heart attack or something,” Rakocevic said. “I don’t really know why we do it.”

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Enfield asked his players, “What are you scared of?” Stewart recalled.

Then he set a goal: Get to single digits by the 12-minute mark of the second half.

The Trojans met that goal with about 12 minutes left on a Boatwright three-pointer.

“We were just getting more and more hope,” Mathews said.

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A pair of Rakocevic free throws made cut the deficit to three. A steal set up a go-ahead jumper from Metu. When a Metu block lead to another score, Providence called timeout.

The game, Metu said, had swung dramatically.

“The other team, they kind of got a little shook,” Metu said. “And we saw that. Smelled blood in the water. And we just pounced on it.”

To emphasize the swing, Metu strolled, unintentionally, he said after, through Providence’s huddle. Providence took offense. Metu said he was shoved. Then he flexed and yelled.

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“From there, it was game on,” Metu said. “They’re on the East Coast, they think we’re just some preppy beach boys because we’re in Southern California. We just toughened up.”

Metu finished with 15 points. Boatwright led USC with 24, and McLaughlin scored 18 with 10 rebounds.

But the king of the evening strolled through the locker room, sheathed in an NCAA-branded towel instead of a robe, cracking jokes and taking grief.

Rakocevic had not exhausted his energy.

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“And thank God,” Metu said, “because we really needed that.”

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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