LAS VEGAS (AP) — Trailing by 14 with nine minutes left, Southern California. No way was a young, inexperienced team that had a history of losing close games going to come back.
Instead of folding, as everyone might have expected, the Trojans dug down for a comeback victory and earned another shot at their biggest rival.
Elijah Stewart scored 27 points and hit two free throws with 3.4 seconds left after a big block by Nikola Jovanovic, helping Southern California rally for a 67-64 win over Arizona State in the Pac-12 tournament on Wednesday.
“We’ve lost so many close games down the stretch, so it’s nice to win one,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “I’m proud of our effort to come back, take the lead and hold onto it.”
No. 5 seed Arizona State (17-15) was in control most of the way, leading by double digits well into the second half.
Behind Stewart and a zone defense that befuddled the Sun Devils, the Trojans fought their way back, setting up a frenetic finish.
USC (12-19), the tournament’s 12th seed, went on a big run with about five minutes left and kept making big plays.
The Trojans led by three with a minute left, when Arizona State’s Shaquielle McKissic scored on a hard drive with 53 seconds left. Arizona State grabbed two offensive rebounds on its next possession to earn a shot at a game-winner, but Jovanovic swooped across the land and swatted McKissic’s shot attempt.
Stewart calmly hit two free throws and McKissic’s last-ditch 3-pointer bounced off the back of the rim to send USC into the quarterfinals against UCLA on Thursday.
Stewart hit 6 of 9 from 3-point range and Julian Jacobs added 12 points for the Trojans, who closed the game on a 21-4 run.
“We really just were ultra-focused and remained poised,” Jacobs said.
Arizona State wasn’t, particularly against USC’s zone in the second half.
The Sun Devils struggled to get good shots in the second half and missed most of the ones they took, missing 12 of 13 to close out the game. Arizona State also struggled defensively once the Trojans got rolling, allowing them to hit 15 of 26 shots in the second half.
McKissic had 16 points and nine rebounds in his final game with Arizona State. Bo Barnes added 15 points for the Sun Devils, who may end up in the NIT after playing in the NCAA Tournament last season.
“We had a 15-point lead. I don’t really know how to explain how it evaporated so quickly besides lack of hustle, energy,” McKissic said. “I don’t know how that happened.”
Arizona State opened the conference season with four straight losses, but rebounded nicely. The Sun Devils played some of their best basketball down the stretch, winning six of their final nine games.
One of those was a victory over USC that was closer than they would have hoped.
Despite playing without Katin Reinhardt due to a suspension, the last-place Trojans had Arizona State on the ropes in Tempe, leading by 10 with 10 minutes left. The Sun Devils struggled from the perimeter, but hit a pair of late 3-pointers to pull out the 64-59 victory.
Arizona State again had trouble getting shots to fall early, particularly around the basket.
Barnes gave the Sun Devils a lift, scoring eight points in less than 2 minutes, and McKissic added five points during a 15-2 run that put Arizona State up 25-14.
Arizona State also grabbed nine offensive rebounds that led to 12 more shots and a 38-28 first-half lead.
USC was good from the perimeter, making 4 of 6 from 3-point range, but had 10 first-half turnovers.
Arizona State opened the second half with some ugly possessions, but still managed to keep the lead in double digits.
The Sun Devils went up 55-41 after McKissic scored in transition, but the Trojans still had some fight in them.
Behind a tightened-up defense and Stewart, USC went on a 12-2 run. Stewart capped with a 3-pointer, cutting Arizona State’s lead to 60-55 with 4
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