USC basketball lost just their second game of the season on Sunday, falling to Cal 74-73 at the Galen Center thanks to poor free throw shooting.
The lowdown: The Trojans jumped out to a 5-0 lead with a Jordan McLaughlin lay up and Nick Rakocevic fastbreak.
When Cal pulled back with seven straight points to take the lead, De’Anthony Melton came up with the steal to set up McLaughling’s three-pointer. A couple possessions later, Melton asserted himself on the defensive end again, blocking a shot.
The Bears built their lead to 13-8 and again it was Melton driving the Trojans, banking in a runner.
By the halfway point in the first half, Cal’s advantage was six as the Trojan offense struggled to get going and the Bears asserted control over the boards.
Chimezie Metu hit five shots in a row after missing his first four to keep USC in the game, drawing back within one point of the Bears with just over five minutes to go.
The Trojans retook the lead at 26-25 after a flagrant foul on a Melton fastbreak attempt.
With two minutes in the period, Cal’s Don Coleman converted a three-point play to put the Bears up 34-31 after an apparent trip as Melton attempted to get the ball down the court on a fastbreak went uncalled.
USC drew even at the buzzer, though, when McLaughlin launched a shot from half court, banking it in off the backboard.
Cal opened the second half with two quick baskets, including a dunk by seven-footer Kingsley Okoroh, followed by back-to-back triples.
McLaughlin’s three cut the deficit to 46-43, but the back-and-forth affair favored the Bears, who continued to pull away, taking an eight-point lead with five minutes gone in the second.
A 10-0 run, including a Melton jumper, then an alley-oop slam from McLaughlin to Metu and a triple from Shaqquon Aaron gave the Trojans the lead at 53-51.
Aaron later restored USC’s lead with a timely jumper after the Bears pulled back in front.
With Cal’s Ivan Rabb out of the game due to foul trouble, Melton hit a three, but Jabari Bird answered just a few seconds later, ensuring the game stayed tied at 61 with seven minutes remaining.
Though Melton’s second three-pointer gave the Trojans an advantage, by the three and a half minute mark Charlie Moore made it even once more at 68.
That’s when Elijah Stewart, who had been quiet for most of the night, came up with a clutch triple out of a timeout.
However, USC’s joy was short lived as a free throw from Rabb and a three-pointer by Bird put the Bears ahead with under two minutes left.
McLaughlin lost the handle as the clock ticked under a minute, but the Trojans forced a shot-clock violation to give USC hope.
The Trojan captain drew a foul with half a minute left, but missed both shots, uncharacteristically.
Stewart bailed McLaughlin out, stealing the ball to set up another McLaughlin shot, but the junior’s effort was blocked out of bounds.
Given another opportunity, McLaughlin didn’t miss again, driving to the basket and laying up the go-ahead field goal with 14 seconds on the clock.
Down the other end, Rabb was fouled with five seconds remaining. Normally a poor free throw shooter, the big man hit both shots to give the Bears a one-point lead.
Though McLaughlin tried to hit another buzzer beater to end the game, his driving lay up was blocked by Rabb and the Trojans dropped just their second game of the season, falling to 15-2.
The takeaway: USC will look back and regret their poor free throw shooting on the night, shooting just 47% from the line, including the two critical McLaughlin misses in the final seconds.
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While McLaughlin led the Trojans with 20 points and drove in the go-ahead lay up, his 3-for-8 free throw shooting on an inexplicably bad night from the charity stripe does down as one of the critical factors in USC’s loss.
The Trojans were also out-rebounded for most of the game, struggling with Cal’s size as the Bears nabbed 12 offensive boards.
Still, Chimezie Metu found his scoring touch and finished with 20 points as well.
Ultimately, it’s a disappointing result for USC, but the Trojans must regroup quickly as they face road tests next weekend.
Player of the game: De’Anthony Melton; 13 points, 4-9 FGs, 2-5 3FGs, 3-5 FTs, 7 rebounds, 4 assists.
Stat of the game: USC hit nine-straight shots before the end of the first half.
Next on tap: The Trojans will be back on the road, taking on Utah on Thursday, Jan. 12 at 6 p.m.