USC basketball (24-9) battled UCLA (28-3) to the end but couldn’t finish the comeback against the Bruins, falling 76-74 in the Pac-12 tournament.
The lowdown: It’s possible the Trojans could have started worse, but not by much. UCLA jumped out to an 8-0 lead as USC missed their first eight shots.
Bennie Boatwright finally broke the scoring drought with a three-pointer, but that didn’t stop the bleeding.
A De’Anthony Melton fastbreak and a Jordan McLaughlin triple helped cut into the deficit early, 14-9. However, USC’s offense couldn’t keep up with the Bruin scorers, who maintained a double-digit cushion.
With under four minutes remaining, Elijah Stewart hit back-to-back three-pointers pull the Trojans back into contention at 32-26 despite their struggles in the first half.
UCLA responded with a high-arching three from Lonzo Ball followed by a deep shot from TJ Leaf pushed the deficit back, but Melton grabbed a mishandled ball and completed a layup plus a foul shot to pull back within eight.
Then it was Jonah Mathews finishing USC’s end-of-half surge by trimming it to just three points with his second three-pointer of the night. The Trojans went into halftime down 38-35.
Melton forced a shot clock violation and Metu tossed in a jumper to continue USC’s surge in the second half, but the Bruins recovered quickly with the next 11 points, including a wide open Bryce Alford three and a Thomas Welsh dunk.
Five minutes into the half, the Trojans picked things up by getting to the free throw line. McLaughlin converted a three point opportunity on a foul, cutting the deficit to nine points at 46-55.
USC continued to chip away at UCLA’s advantage with Mathews attacking the rim and drawing a foul to cut the gap to seven.
A pair of McLaughlin layups pulled the Trojans within five with under seven to go.
McLaughlin then generated a stunning alley-oop to Stewart, but the guard couldn’t convert the free throw after a foul on the dunk to cut even further into the lead.
He did convert on a corner three with four and a half minutes to go, however, putting USC with two points of their crosstown rival.
The Trojans didn’t score again until just before the final minute when Metu hit a pair of free throws to pull it back to a three-point deficit, 74-71.
Playing to extend the game, McLaughlin couldn’t get a floater to go but Stewart was there for the put back — which he failed to put in.
Alford hit to free throws to extend the Bruin lead and although Bennie Boatwright knocked down a three-pointer with seconds remaining, UCLA was able to run out the clock, taking the win 76-74.
The takeaway: A win would have essentially guaranteed USC a place in the NCAA Tournament, but as it stands, the close loss should help their resume heading into Selection Sunday.
In fact, it was a wonder the Trojans managed to fight as closely as they did, shooting 39 percent from the field and hitting just 68 percent of their free throw attempts.
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USC was far from their best against the Bruins, but they didn’t let UCLA blow the game open like they did at Pauley Pavilion earlier this year.
McLaughlin once again lived up to his role as the veteran leader of USC’s team, topping the Trojan scoring chart with 18 points while adding six assists and committing just one turnover.
After a difficult start, Metu also stood up to be counted with 14 rebounds, though he managed just eight points.
Stat of the game: USC forced 13 UCLA turnovers and picked up 15 points off of turnovers.
Next on tap: The Trojans will await their fate on Selection Sunday. Chances are their season will continue in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s up to the selection committee now.