Pac-12 Tournament: USC shocks Arizona State to advance to quarterfinals
LAS VEGAS – The clock was winding down with eight seconds left. The crowd rose to its feet. This was it. One possession for the game.
Arizona State guard Shaq McKissic's squad was on the verge of a huge collapse, but he could save them with another layup. So he put his head down and drove to the hoop amidst heavy traffic. One problem: USC's Nikola Jovanovic was waiting for him. With the game hanging in the balance, Jovanovic rose up and swatted away McKissic's shot, sealing an improbable 67-64 comeback victory for the 12th-seeded Trojans in the opening round of the Pac-12 Men's Basketball Tournament on Wednesday at MGM Grand Garden Arena.
"It was a big-time block," Jovanovic said. "I really saved my team."
You can say that again.
Behind the furious finish from its young squad, USC is set for a rivalry matchup against UCLA in the quarterfinals. Fans can watch Thursday's contest against the Bruins at 2:30 p.m. PT on Pac-12 Networks or with free access on Pac-12.com and Pac-12 Now.
For a team that suffered tough loss after tough loss throughout the season, it was some sweet justice for USC coach Andy Enfield. The Trojans showed a lot of poise for a team with no seniors and only three juniors who play sparingly. That was a game won by freshmen and sophomores.
"We have never let those losses define who we are or where this program is going," Enfield said of his team's struggles in close games. "But we've improved dramatically. We've never felt better about the future of our basketball program than right now."
With about 10 minutes left in the contest, it looked like the Sun Devils would be cruising into the second round. Not so fast.
ASU sharpshooter Bo Barnes drained a three-pointer to give his team a 58-43 lead at the 9:45 mark, and it seemed the game was essentially over, but Elijah Stewart answered with a trifecta of his own on the other end. Then he hit another. Then Julian Jacobs started driving to the hoop and getting his buckets. Then Katin Reinhardt started knocking down his jumpers.
[Related photos: Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament first round]
The comeback was on.
"Coach made a point at halftime that the season was at stake," Jacobs said. "We didn't really want to go out losing to a team that we should have beat in the past and we thought this was a winnable game. We really just were ultra-focused and remained poised. I think that was the key."
The Trojans finished the contest on a 21-4 run, finally jumping ahead with Darion Clark's left-handed lay-in with 2:04 left to make it 63-62.
While USC seemingly couldn't miss on one end of the floor, the Sun Devils couldn't crack the Trojans' zone defense in the second half. In all, USC shot 52.2 percent (including 57.7 in the second half), while ASU shot just 30.3 percent from the field. It was a shocking defeat for the Sun Devils, who bid adieu to seniors McKissic, Barnes and Jonathan Gilling.
"Terrible. I mean, there's no other way you could feel after losing like that," Barnes said shortly after the end of his college career. "We had chances to put them away, and we just couldn't get stops."
Meanwhile, there was no stopping Stewart on this afternoon. The sophomore almost single-handedly kept USC in the game before intermission, draining a trio of three-pointers to lead the Trojans with 13 points. He kept his hot streak going into the second half, finishing with a game-high 27 points, making six of nine attempts from long distance. But the youngster stayed humble when discussing his big afternoon.
"Just been putting in the preparation for this game," Stewart said. "Getting the shots, working on dribble moves, coming screens and stuff like that. It showed in the game."
The contest changed drastically in the second half once Enfield told his team to play zone as the Sun Devils got stagnant on offense and settled for perimeter shots. The Trojans have only been using the defensive scheme for a month, but Enfield praised his players for their ability to be active and execute down the stretch.
Like his team, Jovanovic had a forgettable first half (0-for-2, three turnovers), but it all worked out in the end.
"I had a nightmare night," Jovanovic said of his first half. "It happens. Like in offense, it doesn't need to go my way all the time, but on defense, I can influence the game and that's what I did."