USC’s regular-season finale against Arizona State on Saturday night took on the feeling of a postseason game, and that was only fitting.
The Trojans knew the outcome could impact their NCAA tournament hopes, while the Sun Devils absolutely needed to win for their own hopes of making the 68-team bracket.
And so the final minute played out with all the suspense that defines March Madness before USC closed out a 68-65 win at the Galen Center.
“It was a great way to go out on Senior Night to make it interesting in the end. Every game we play with Arizona State is always close. They usually end with some kind of shot in the last 30 seconds or even sometimes at the buzzer , like today,” USC coach Andy Enfield said.
USC (22-9, 14-6 Pac-12) led by 14 points with less than 6 minutes to go and by 9 points with 3:30 remaining before Arizona State mounted a rally.
Desmond Cambridge Jr. hit two free throws following a technical foul on Reese Dixon-Waters, and moments later Warren Washington blocked Kobe Johnson’s dunk attempt leading to a Sun Devils fast break that ultimately ended in Cambridge scoring on a third-chance attempt to cut the Trojans’ lead to 62-57.
From there, it was tense and frenetic until the finish.
USC’s Drew Peterson and Washington for ASU traded buckets before Frankie Collins drained a 3-pointer for the Sun Devils to make it a 64-62 USC lead with 1:10 to play.
Both teams missed 3s in the ensuing possessions and Peterson made 1 of 2 from the line to push it to 65-62 with 22 seconds on the clock.
Collins quickly scored for Arizona State, Tre White knocked down two big free throws for USC and it then looked like Collins got fouled on a 3-point attempt with 7 seconds left. But replay review showed his foot was on the line, and Collins went 1 of 2 from the stripe to leave it a 2-point game. It still wasn’t over, though. Joshua Morgan made 1 of 2 free throws for USC, and although the Trojans intended to foul on the other end to prevent a 3-point shot, DJ Horne got off a potential game-tying 3 from the right side at the buzzer.
It clanked off the rim as the Trojans could finally exhale.
More to the point, they can also probably take some confidence about their NCAA tournament fate with them to Las Vegas and the Pac-12 tourney next week.
In his latest bracket projections, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has USC as a No. 10 seed opening the NCAA tournament in Sacramento.
“My opinion, at 22-9 with the schedule we’ve had, some teams don’t have a high major win all year or a [Quad 1] win. If you really want to you can make cases for a lot of teams to make it and a lot of teams not to make it, so we try to just focus on what we can control and that’s to try to win basketball games,” Enfield said “Our conference is very good — it’s always underrated nationally. Teams get better in our league throughout the season, including us, and we’re in third place in the Pac-12, 14-6. Some of these teams are three, four, five games under .500 in their league and other teams haven’t played a schedule — they don’t have to go on the road for the mountain trip or the Oregons. So I think our team deserves to be in the tournament, and I do think Arizona State deserves to be in as well.”
As of now, the Sun Devils (20-11, 11-9) are not projected to make it as only three Pac-12 teams — UCLA, Arizona and the Trojans — make Lunardi’s latest bracket.
The teams could meet again soon as the Trojans open Pac-12 tournament play Wednesday at 8:30 pm PT as the No. 3 seed vs. the winner of No. 6 Arizona State and No. 11 Oregon State.
Meanwhile, on Senior Night, Boogie Ellis shined again for USC with 28 points — he’s averaging 25.8 points over the last six games — while Peterson surprised the staff by even playing after dealing with back soreness all week. He finished with 9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks in 31 minutes.
“He wasn’t himself tonight. I don’t know if he was 60, 70, 80 percent, somewhere in there. You could see he didn’t have his explosiveness, but this is Senior Night. He’s never missed a game in his college career,” Enfield said. “I didn’t think he was playing, none of us thought he was going to play, so for him to deal with the pain and play 31 minutes and help us win, that was just a really tough Senior Night. He showed a lot of heart and toughness.”
Tre White added 13 points and 7 rebounds off the bench in the win.
Enfield again praised this squad as one of his most improved teams in a decade at USC while heaping more praise on Ellis and Peterson for the stabilizing role they played throughout the season.
Ellis finished the regular season at 18.1 points per game — second-best in the Pac-12 — while finishing second in the league with 81 made 3s (at a 39.1-percent clip). Peterson averaged 14.1 PPG and led the Trojans in rebounding (6.3 per game) and assists (4.48).
“This was really an impressive season for Boogie and Drew because we had no experience. The other guys had never been relied upon to start, to play starter’s minutes, to be relied upon every single game to win a college basketball game,” he said . “We knew that it would be a little challenging the beginning of the year because Boogie and Drew were the only guys that had that experience. That’s why it’s so impressive how they led our team by example but also every day in practice and in the games were relied upon. And the other guys improved a lot, and I think you saw that with quite a few of our players.”