LOS ANGELES, CA-The USC men’s basketball team played well enough during the 2017-18 college basketball season to get an invite to the NCAA Tournament. The Trojans finished second in the Pac-12 Conference, and then wound up as the runner-up to Arizona in the conference tournament championship game.
Making it into the Big Dance should have been a shoo-in, but it wasn’t. As it was, USC didn’t get the invitation it was seeking. Instead, the Trojans had to settle for an invitation from the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). If the first round of the tournament is any indication, the teams the Trojans will be facing are no slouch in the competiveness category.
No. 1-seeded USC, using all the scrappiness it could muster, pulled out a see-saw, adrenaline-pumping 103-98 double-overtime win against No. 8 UNC Asheville at Galen Center. It wasn’t easy for the Trojans. At all. This game basically came down to who blinked during crunch time. Each time the Bulldogs stormed off to a lead of sorts during the fourth quarter and the two overtime periods as they sought to pull off the upset, the Trojans defiantly came back.
There was point guard Jordan McLaughlin lining up and making two free throws at the end of regulation. There was McLaughlin coming to the rescue again with an arching 3-point shot as time was winding down on the Trojans’ season. There was big man Nick Rakocevic bringing down the thunder with his 24 points and 19 rebounds to help the Trojans outduel the Bulldogs in low-post scoring by a margin of 56-38.
There was senior Elijah Stewart putting a seal on the game for the Trojans with a steal and a layup. The Trojans needed all of these minor miracles to get past the pesky Bulldogs. UNC Asheville, which plays in the Big South Conference, didn’t just show up to get a taste of what Southern California life is all about: the Bulldogs came to play ball. They played their hearts out and darn near ended the season for the Trojans.
UNC Asheville gave USC all it could handle in this highly-octane contest. Jonathan Baehre, who had a monster game with 28 points and 14 rebounds, led the frenetic charge for the Bulldogs. MaCio Teague was just as prominent for UNC Asheville, which had five players score in double-figures, with 26 points. USC, of course, had a counter.
The Trojans, playing without forward Chimezie Metu, who made the decision not to play in the NIT out of fear of potential injury before the NBA Draft, relied on McLaughlin to make things happen. McLaughlin, who scored a game-high 26 points and handed out 13 assists, did a lot more than to make things happen: he basically willed the Trojans to this victory.
Whenever USC seemingly needed a big play, McLaughlin delivered in the form of an assist or setting himself up for a knock-down jumper or slashing his way to the basket to score a couple of points. However, USC’s first round win in the NIT was far from being a one-man show. Rakocevic, the recipient of many of McLaughlin’s timely assists, kept things in order under the basket.
The Trojans also got solid contributing efforts from Stewart (22 points) and Jordan Usher (13 points) to keep the relentless efforts of the Bulldogs at bay. Playin four quarters instead of the customary 20-minute halves, USC outscored UNC Asheville in the first two periods. The Bulldogs, getting timely buckets from Baehre and Teague, took the last two quarters in the scoring department.
McLaughlin, that man again, gave USC the lead for good in the second overtime period with a jumper to put his team up 96-95. The Trojans didn’t look back.