The Trojans looked as if they were brewing one of Kevin O’Neill’s upset specials Sunday.
The USC basketball coach is known to cook up a surprise or two early in the season. It has become almost his annual tradition, as reliable as a holiday.
But his Trojans expended far too much energy digging out of an enormous hole against No. 25 San Diego State — a vast pit they dug themselves — for any upset to unfold.
At the end, USC was left breathless and wanting, while the Aztecs just left with a win, 66-60.
“We have to be a team that’s doing our job from the very beginning of the game instead of waiting for whatever to happen before we dig in,” said O’Neill, who added that he might retool his starting lineup.
A strong contingent of San Diego State fans chanted, “This is our house!” in the waning minutes at the Galen Center, and in front of a crowd of 4,421, the Aztecs (4-1) won their 25th consecutive game against a school from California.
But under O’Neill, USC (3-3) has won games like this.
In December 2010, the Trojans beat No. 20 Texas at home and No. 18 Tennessee on the road.
The previous December, USC knocked off No. 8 Tennessee and No. 20 Nevada Las Vegas.
But USC wasn’t headed in that direction when it trailed 27-8 to start the game.
At that point, the Trojans had missed 17 of their first 20 shots and their chances of winning were in free fall.
Then, the second half began.
The Trojans exited intermission on fire, and an Eric Wise jump shot capped an 18-4 run that gave them their first lead, 41-39, with 13 minutes, 37 seconds left.
The game was a fight from there.
But USC made costly mistakes late that swung momentum and ultimately cost them the game.
Center Omar Oraby was called for a technical foul with 2:18 left after getting tangled up with San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin.
Coupled with a personal foul on USC’s Jio Fontan, the Aztecs were rewarded four free throws and the ball.
San Diego State made three of those free throws and Franklin made a jump shot, putting the Aztecs ahead by six.
The Trojans got no closer than four points.
“The immaturity of the emotional stuff, you can’t overcome that in a tight game with a good team,” O’Neill said. “It’s not acceptable, it’s not professional.”
Said Fontan, USC’s captain and point guard: “I’ve got to do a better job controlling the guys on the court and being in control myself.”
Franklin and James Rahon each had 17 points to lead the Aztecs. Wise had 14 points and was the only Trojan to score in double figures.
Worse for USC: Fontan and starting guard J.T. Terrell shot a combined five for 23. Terrell made one of seven three-point shots.
Even worse for USC: It made 11 of its 20 free throws, and the Aztecs made 17 of their 22.