You’ve heard this a million times: Basketball is a game of runs.
No team knows this better than 11-seed USC, whose 13-point comeback in a 66–65 victory over 6-seed SMU on Friday satiated upset-hungry basketball fans and marked the 13th time this season the Zombie Trojans have erased a double-digit deficit to win a game.
On its way to building an eight-point halftime lead, SMU was dominant inside the paint, while USC missed 12 of its 14 3-point attempts — a shot that is usually their bread-and-butter under head coach Andy Enfield. But down 38–30, USC was in familiar territory. Coming back from deficits has become their calling card late in the season. In fact, they fare better at getting back into a game than they do holding onto a lead. Against Providence in their play-in First Four game, USC came back from 15 at the half to prevail, 75–71. At the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas last week, USC also faced a 10-point first-half deficit against Washington. At halftime, coaches challenged the players in the locker room. The Trojans came back and beat the Huskies by five.
On Friday in Tulsa, the key behind the latest USC surge was an astute move by Enfield. Switching to a zone defense, as the Trojans did when they frazzled and beat a high-powered UCLA team in late January, turned the SMU game on its head. The Mustangs’ offense lost its rhythm and, suddenly, USC was back in it.
Yet until the very end, the defense could only pull USC close, not push them over the hump. The problem: USC was flummoxing SMU on defense, but shot an abhorrent 6-of-27 from behind the arc. With 3:35 left, the Trojans were down four when Elijah Stewart missed the team’s 21st 3-pointer of the game. But as Stewart’s shot rattled off the rim, freshman De’Anthony Melton rose for the rebound and grappled it away from Mustang defenders. In one move, he pushed into the paint for a layup, which cut the lead to two points.
A minute later, the Trojans’ best player, Bennie Boatwright, hit a 3-pointer that gave USC its first lead with two minutes to go. SMU countered with a 3 of its own, but on the next possession, USC’s Elijah Stewart hit his trademark shot — a short-corner 3 — and that proved to be the difference.
“I hit the game-winning 3 with a straight face … it’s just being a cold-blooded assassin, I guess,” Stewart said afterward.
The Mustangs had a chance to win it at the end, but their floater, which Stewart never saw, failed to go in. In the span of two minutes, the Trojans had redeemed their poor shooting night and vindicated their coach’s decision to play zone defense in their second victory over SMU this season.
This USC team is one of the youngest in the nation, featuring a walk-on as its only senior. Experience isn’t what’s fueling the Trojans’ resilient performances. Instead, it’s a turnover-forcing defense (top 50 in steals) that fuels their fast-break offense and gets their shooters into a rhythm. As a team that fancies itself better than an 11-seed, the Trojans also have a chip on their shoulder that’s emboldened players like Stewart to take shots at KenPom.
In the end, USC led this game for a whopping total of one minute and 15 seconds. Just enough to stay in the game, just enough to win their school-record 26th game of the season, and just enough to survive and advance in the tournament. Since the First Four’s inception in 2011, at least one team that has won a play-in game has gone on to win one game in the tournament. USC, which will now face Baylor in the Round of 32, is the latest team to complete the feat.
All hail Enfield’s lucky pug.