USC Basketball should be proud of the heart showed vs. UNC Asheville

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ethan Miller/Getty Images /

In a “meaningless” NIT game against UNC Asheville, Jordan McLaughlin and USC Basketball should be proud of how they showed their heart and fighting spirit.

On Tuesday night, USC Basketball battled UNC Asheville in the NIT, narrowly escaping with a double-overtime victory, 103-98.

In the grand scheme of things, that reflects poorly on Andy Enfield’s Trojans, who were favored by more than 16 points on the night. They avoided the upset, but they certainly didn’t dominate a team they should have dominated.

But Tuesday wasn’t something for USC to be embarrassed by. In fact, it should be a point of pride for all involved.

For one, UNC Asheville aren’t scrubs. They won the Big South regular season crown with a group of seniors who have won more games in four years than any other group in program history, missing out on an NCAA Tournament bid themselves because of a semifinal loss in the conference tournament.

The Bulldogs were one opponent for the Trojans. The other was apathy. With Chimezie Metu sitting out to protect his NBA draft stock, USC didn’t exactly try to hide the fact that they weren’t all that excited to be there. On Monday, Enfield wasn’t sure who exactly would play. He noted that the decision to accept the NIT bid was out of his hands. He didn’t make it clear what his choice would have been.

The Bulldogs were one opponent for the Trojans. The other was apathy.

Buzz couldn’t have been lower as a result. Attendance at the Galen Center was historically low as 1,614 fans showed up to watch the NIT first round action.

And the action wasn’t much to write home about in the first place. Through three quarters, the Trojans held a tenuous lead, enough to show they were the more talented squad, even without Metu, but not nearly enough to be called dominant.

Emboldened, UNC Asheville surged ahead in the fourth quarter, taking a four-point lead with 2:55 remaining.

USC could have quit. It would have been easy. NCAA Tournament snubs have been upset by No. 8 seeds in the first round of the NIT on a regular basis. Fans would have been unimpressed, but how many of those same fans have rage quit a video game when it didn’t go their way? It would have been understandable.

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Instead, the Trojans scratched and clawed to stay in a tournament they were accused of not caring about.

After missing 10 of their first 13 free throw attempts, USC made four straight to tie the game and force overtime.

In both the first and second overtimes, UNC Asheville hit multiple three-point baskets to jump ahead by two possessions. And in both overtimes, the Trojans refused to fall away.

Jordan McLaughlin, who converted the game-tying free throws in regulation, hit two more game-tying shots in the first overtime, including a triple with seven seconds to go. He also sank the floater which put USC up for good in the second overtime.

If USC didn’t care about the NIT, they did a poor job of showing it.

Did they put in the effort and energy on the defensive end they might have in the NCAA Tournament? Surely not. But they’re only playing next Monday in the second round against Western Kentucky because they showed a great deal of fight against a UNC Asheville team that also gave their everything.

McLaughlin led the way with 26 points and 13 assists. Already one of the greats in USC Basketball history, he solidified his place as a Trojan legend with his efforts. Others came to play as well. Nick Rakocevic had 24 points and 19 rebounds. Elijah Stewart had 22 points, six rebounds and hit five-of-five free throws to ice the contest.

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Give the Trojans credit for their fighting spirit. Perhaps they’ll use it to fuel a consolation run through the NIT. Perhaps not. However this season ends, McLaughlin and company showed their heart on Tuesday night. They, and USC fans, should be proud of that, if nothing else.