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USC's victory in regular-season finale has Coach Andy Enfield feeling better

USC's victory in regular-season finale has Coach Andy Enfield feeling better
USC forward Chimezie Metu dunks a basket in the first half against Washington on March 4. (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

Andy Enfield spent much of the second half of USC's final regular-season game, a 74-58 victory against Washington on Saturday at Galen Center, in a state of agitation. He waved his arms and stomped his feet. He emoted and dropped theatrically into his chair.

Enfield had acknowledged earlier in the week that he'd been feeling the stress that comes with sitting on the NCAA tournament bubble. The tenuous position meant USC couldn't afford to lose to 11th-place Washington, which was playing without its best player, Markelle Fultz. But USC was having trouble staking any sort of decisive lead.

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"We just did not take care of the basketball," Enfield said.

A missed one-and-one free throw, and Enfield grimaced. An errant pass, and he balled his fists. A botched fast break, followed by an unforced De'Anthony Melton turnover, caused Enfield to twirl around, his face red.

But within minutes after the victory, Enfield's mood had brightened considerably. He cracked jokes about his senior walk-on forward, Samer Dhillon. During a postgame news conference, he thanked reporters for covering him.

"I think I like most people in this room," Enfield grinned. "I think so."

And he spoke sunnily about the direction of his program, which had just completed its best Pac-12 Conference finish, tied for fifth, in Enfield's four seasons, and its best regular-season record since 1992.

Enfield announced that he would keep his team's schedule clear Sunday "to enjoy the moment."

"There's a lot of stress and a lot of pressure," Enfield said. "But at some point you've got to realize, hey, you accomplished something,."

No one acknowledged it directly, but what was unsaid what this: Barring a shocking NCAA tournament decision, or a significant Pac-12 tournament implosion, USC will be headed to its second straight NCAA tournament.

According to some projections, USC has only nudged itself away from NCAA tournament oblivion. Earlier Saturday, ESPN's Joe Lunardi listed USC as one of the final four teams in the field, meaning the Trojans would be relegated to a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, as an No. 11 seed.

But there is reason for optimism. The Trojans finished the regular season at 23-8, and 10-8 in the Pac-12. Last season, they were 20-11 and 8-8, and made the NCAA tournament safely as a No. 8 seed. The conference's depth is weaker this season, but so is that of the prospective tournament field.

"We think the conference doesn't get enough respect," Enfield said.

USC, the sixth seed in the Pac-12 because of a tiebreaker with California, is on course to play third-seeded UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament second round, but first it must play Washington again in the first round Wednesday. The degree of difficulty could increase in the rematch.

"It's tough to beat a team two times, so imagine a third," point guard Jordan McLaughlin said.

More relevant is a potential return of Fultz, who is expected to be a top NBA draft pick, but has missed five of seven games with a knee injury.

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Without him, Washington (9-21, 2-16) is toothless offensively, but the Huskies still gave USC trouble. They led by 10 points early in the first half and stymied USC's best offensive weapon, Bennie Boatwright, who finished with nine points. Only two USC starters scored in double figures: Chimezie Metu, who scored 17, and McLaughlin, who scored 22 points, made nine assists and more generally dazzled for a second game in a row.

"It's March," he explained. "You've got to play your basketball. It's about that time."

Noah Dickerson led Washington with 27 points.

Despite its struggles, USC still shot almost 59% overall, its best clip of the season. It claimed a double-digit lead with less than four minutes remaining.

USC's lead was big enough by the final minute for Enfield to put in his seniors. Before the game, USC showed a highlight film for the pair, Minnesota transfer Charles Buggs and Dhillon. Dhillon's was short on baskets; footage of his celebrations were more substantial.

After Enfield put him in, Dhillon found himself with the ball in the corner and plenty of time remaining on the shot clock. He let loose, made a three-pointer and high-fived fans seated along the sideline.

"Sam has been practicing that shot for four years now," Enfield said.

"Pretty much, man," Dhillon said.

When his news conference was over, Dhillon stopped as he was walking out.

"First time in here, and last time in here," he said.

He waved, then pretended to drop a microphone.

USC next

Wednesday vs. Washington, 8:30 p.m., T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, Pac-12 Networks — USC's win over Washington sets up a rematch in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. The winner will play UCLA in the quarterfinals.

Twitter: @zhelfand

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