They’d scratched and clawed their way back, coming alive where a young team so often collapsed, obliterating a deep deficit they had little business overcoming, and now, with 10 precious seconds remaining, a wide-eyed Elijah Weaver watched as a frantic inbound pass soared inexplicably in the Trojans’ direction.
As Jonah Mathews leaped into the air, intercepting the errant pass at half court, Weaver took off for a spot just beyond the three-point line. Just a few games earlier, Weaver had been removed from the starting lineup, told he was playing too passively. But now, Mathews saw the sophomore standing wide open. With time ticking down, Weaver resolved to take the game into his own hands.
He took a three-point shot, contorting in mid-air as he braced for contact. The desperate shot looked all but doomed. But then again, so had the Trojans just 10 minutes earlier.
Weaver sank the three-point prayer, even drawing a foul, and eventually USC sank Stanford 82-78, completing a stunning comeback performance in overtime which, for the time being, puts the Trojans atop the Pac-12 Conference.
More important than that, though, was what the comeback proved to a young team that so often folded when it had fallen behind before.
“This gives us great confidence,” coach Andy Enfield said. “We were confident going into today, but to win like this gives you another jolt. This was special. This doesn’t happen often.”
It was a result that might’ve been impossible to believe following the game’s first half, when the Trojans (15-3, 4-1) struggled on offense, looked lackadaisical on defense, and in turn, dug themselves a 21-point hole.
“We weren’t playing smart, and we weren’t playing together,” freshman Onyeka Okongwu said. “We were playing soft.”
Enfield told his players as much, and then some, at the half, after Stanford hit 66% of its shots to open up a near-insurmountable lead. The USC coach said he had to emulate his father’s deep, booming voice to properly send the message.
“I almost passed out,” Enfield said. “I yelled very loudly, and our players responded.”
Weaver grinned when asked about Enfield’s apparently memorable speech.
“He was getting after us a little bit,” Weaver said.
The response to his halftime message was almost immediate. The Trojans had a 13-2 run to open the second half, finally finding their stroke on offense. They worked the ball into Okongwu, who took a more aggressive approach in the paint and finished with a team-high 22 points.
USC also clamped down on defense, injecting energy into what was a lifeless first-half effort on that end. Stanford (15-3, 4-1) shot just 35% from the field the rest of the way.
Still, after the deep hole they’d dug in the first half, the Trojans found themselves on the brink of defeat throughout the wild second-half sequence that led to Weaver’s deep shot. As they drew closer, Stanford often pulled away.
USC cut the deficit to two points with five minutes remaining, and then three a few minutes later. With 15 seconds left, the deficit was five points and the Trojans, again, looked dead in the water.
But then Okongwu got a fortunate tip-in to fall, and in the frantic aftermath Stanford threw its errant pass to Mathews. Weaver was waiting.
“It was time to win,” Weaver said, “time to be clutch.”
Weaver missed the free throw that would’ve iced the game for good — “I was hard on myself for that,” he said — but the sophomore guard and his fellow Trojans would carry their energetic effort into overtime.
Weaver scored eight points during extra time, knocking down three key free throws to redeem his earlier miss.
There was no coming back from there for Stanford, as USC put the finishing touches on its biggest statement of the season so far.
“We had a couple games before where we got down, and we started to give up,” Weaver said. “This game just goes to show that we have a lot of resilience.”