Mouths agape on the bench, USC looked for answers from above during the first half of its crucial Pac-12 tournament opener against Washington.
After a timeout, shell-shocked by three straight Washington three-pointers, several USC players, chests heaving, gazed at the video board above the court. It did not show a friendly message: A double-digit deficit, a clock ticking down to halftime and a reckoning with a possible early end to the season.
“For a team that it’s not 100% sure that we’re in the tournament, yeah, we didn’t come out with a lot of energy,” forward Chimezie Metu said.
It made sense that in this, likely USC’s final test before an NCAA tournament bid, it would face a big deficit. USC had already come back from 10 points down 10 times this season.
Its 11th may have sent USC back to the big tournament. USC stormed back again for a 78-73 victory at T-Mobile Arena on Wednesday evening.
USC won, but did not resolve its late-game issues. Up seven points with 45 seconds left, USC avoided disaster on a missed three-pointer by Washington that would’ve tied the score.
The Trojans (24-8) advanced to the quarterfinals, where they will play UCLA here for the third season in a row.
“I thought our players did a great job of coming back,” USC Coach Andy Enfield said. “We have to play smarter offense, We have to come out of the gate and play well.”
Wednesday’s victory was the second game in a row that Washington had put a fright into USC. The start of the conference tournament obliged USC to play Washington after ending its regular season with the Huskies last week. The absence of Washington’s star, Markelle Fultz, made the task significantly easier.
Despite his absence, USC had slogged through an uninspired first half in the previous affair and couldn’t shake Washington until the final minutes. Throughout, they were tormented by Washington’s big man, Noah Dickerson, who scored 27 points.
There were few more answers Wednesday. Dickerson scored a dozen points in the first half to stake Washington (9-22) to a small lead before Matisse Thybulle’s three-pointers on three straight possessions ballooned the difference to 10 points.
After the timeout, the Trojans responded with eight unanswered points over a three-minute span to move within striking distance, 39-37, by halftime.
Guard De’Anthony Melton said they “emphasized if we really want to play for something, we better come out in the second half and bring it together.”
In the second half the Trojans turned the game around with defense. They swarmed Washington for 10 turnovers and turned them into easy baskets.
Ten minutes in, Bennie Boatwright drew a foul, Washington’s Carlos Johnson was whistled for a technical and Metu hit a turnaround to finish a six-point possession after Boatwright made all four foul shots. It was enough to overcome the sloppy closeout.
Metu finished with 24 points. Boatwright scored 13.
For Washington, Dickerson finished with 18 points and David Crisp had 22.
When the Trojans had awakened in Las Vegas on Wednesday morning, they found themselves in position to make the field of 68. USC appeared in 126 of a total of 132 bracket projections, according to the bracketology aggregator website Bracket Matrix.
But its position was tenuous. USC was the second-to-last team in the field in the bracket of ESPN’s Joe Lunardi on Wednesday morning. The selection committee offers periodic glimpses at only the top 16 teams, but USC figured another bad loss could be fatal.
“Honestly, right now, we don’t even know if we’re in,” Metu said earlier this week. “We know one loss and our season’s pretty much over. That’s kind of how we’re facing it.”
The win should ease some uneasiness. UCLA presents a much stiffer challenge in the second round, but a loss would not inflict any serious damage on USC’s resume. And a win would all but guarantee that the Trojans would also avoid the preliminary rounds in Dayton, Ohio.
“We feel like we’re in pretty good shape for the NCAA tournament, being a decent seed as well because we have 24 wins,” Enfield said.
If USC still has cause to worry, it only has to look to last season to the other USC: South Carolina, which finished 24-8 in a power conference and missed the tournament. But South Carolina had fewer quality wins, more bad losses and didn’t win a game in its conference tournament. And this season’s bubble is generally considered weaker than a year ago.
“We’ll probably be the No. 16 seed,” guard Elijah Stewart joked afterward.
Metu said he didn’t know if the win meant USC was headed to the tournament. “So we’re just going to have to keep winning,” he said.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand