Nick Rakocevic scratched his head and stared at the carpet in the locker room, the devastation evident in his voice.
Only a few minutes earlier the USC forward had held the ball, and maybe the game, in his hands after grabbing a rebound with seven seconds left. The Trojans didn’t have any timeouts left and needed to go the length of the court for a tying three-pointer and a chance to complete a furious comeback against top-seeded Washington.
Rakocevic dribbled toward halfcourt and didn’t see any teammates open. He continued into the frontcourt, finally spotting Shaqquan Aaron making a move to get open on the wing.
Here was an opportunity to get one of the team’s long-range shooters the ball on an afternoon the Trojans had matched the Huskies steal for steal, block for block, shot for shot.
But USC could not conjure one final answer. Rakocevic put too much oomph on his pass and it sailed out of bounds with three seconds left, securing Washington’s 78-75 victory Thursday at T-Mobile Arena in a Pac-12 Conference quarterfinal.
“I just threw a bad pass,” Rakocevic said, “and it cost my team the game.”
Rakocevic placed his hands on his head in disbelief as the Huskies and their fans celebrated their good fortune. The Trojans could only foul David Crisp with four-tenths of a second left. He missed both free throws, but Rakocevic’s full-court heave at the buzzer fell short, just like his team’s comeback from 10 points down in the final eight minutes.
“I honestly believe in our heart and in Washington’s heart, they know we should have won that game,” USC guard Jonah Mathews said after the top-seeded Huskies (25-7) advanced to face Colorado in a semifinal Friday. “Both teams fought, but I feel like we should have come out with the victory but we didn’t so we have to regroup and get ready for next year.”
The Trojans (16-17) will have to move on without senior forward Bennie Boatwright, who tallied 16 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in his final college game. It was also a farewell for Aaron, the senior guard who scored six points, and possibly Kevin Porter Jr., the freshman guard who scored 17 points and said afterward that he was uncertain about his future.
“I have to talk to my family and see what’s best for me,” said Porter, who is contemplating declaring for the NBA draft, where he’s widely projected as a first-round pick.
USC continually found itself in comeback mode largely as the result of its 17 turnovers. The Trojans generated 10 steals, matching Washington’s total, but could not consistently execute on offense in the final minutes.
“That makes the loss even worse, knowing that you’re right there and one play can make a difference,” Porter said. “It just hurts, honestly. We just fought today, so that just showed our character and if we were going to go out, that’s how we were going to go out, fighting.”
Rakocevic’s late turnover was about the only thing he did wrong on an afternoon he tallied 17 points, 17 rebounds, three blocks and two steals. He clapped as he crouched in a defensive stance after Mathews’ three-pointer had pulled the Trojans to within 72-71 with 1:10 left.
Washington scored the next five points in a dizzying five-second sequence that included Dominic Green’s three-pointer and a Matisse Thybulle steal that he punctuated with a windmill dunk. Thybulle’s five steals gave him 115 for the season, a Pac-12 record.
USC made one final counter. Derryck Thornton made two of three free throws after being fouled on a three-pointer and Rakocevic tipped in a miss to shave Washington’s lead to 77-75 with seven seconds left. The Trojans immediately fouled Jaylen Nowell, who made the first free throw but missed the second before Rakocevic grabbed the rebound, triggering the play that ended with him throwing the ball out of bounds.
USC coach Andy Enfield wasn’t in any mood to discuss what had gone wrong on the final sequence.
“That’s called a five-man special,” Enfield said dryly when asked if there was a play called or if the Trojans were just trying to get a basket. “We want our worst ballhandler and slowest guy handling the ball and throwing it out of bounds. We called that play in [a] timeout about eight minutes before.”
Enfield called his team’s last few minutes a microcosm of its season.
“We’re good enough and talented enough to compete, our players play hard,” Enfield said. “But our margin of error is so small that those crucial moments, whether it’s a turnover, defensive stop, made shot, free throw or last-second shot, haven’t gone our way this year and it’s been unfortunate.”
Mathews wrapped his arm around Rakocevic as they walked off the court after the game, telling his teammate that everybody makes mistakes and that he loved him.
“I just told him, ‘You fought hard, you had a great season,’ ” Mathews said, “ ‘one bad play doesn’t define you as a person or a player.’ ”