LAS VEGAS (AP) — Southern California’s quest to reach the NCAA Tournament likely couldn’t survive a loss to one of the Pac-12’s worst teams.
The Trojans prevailed, and while it was a struggle, coach Andy Enfield believes they’ve now done enough to earn a bid.
Chimezie Metu had 24 points and nine rebounds, and USC withstood a poor start and sloppy finish to hold off Washington 78-73 on Wednesday night in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.
Bennie Boatwright added 13 points for the sixth-seeded Trojans, who rallied from 10 points down in the first half and then nearly blew a 14-point lead before securing a spot in Thursday’s quarterfinals against No. 3 UCLA.
“Our RPI is in the high 30s and we’re 24-8, so we feel like we’re in pretty good shape for the NCAA Tournament,” Enfield said.
David Crisp had 22 points, eight rebounds and seven assists for the Huskies (9-22) but missed a game-tying 3-point attempt in the closing seconds. Noah Dickerson scored 18 points, but Washington was undone by 10 second-half turnovers in its school-record 13th straight loss.
Washington, holding an RPI of 202 entering the day, played without potential No. 1 NBA draft pick Markelle Fultz for a fourth straight game. The Pac-12 top scorer sat out with a sore knee, meaning the freshman’s college career is likely over.
The question now is whether coach Lorenzo Romar will return. He said a report that indicated it had been decided he will be retained was false.
“I have not received any indications from the administration one way or another,” Romar said. “It’s an evaluation process going on right now.”
Washington tied a school record for losses in a season, but the Trojans still struggled for much of the night. USC didn’t put it away until Shaqquan Aaron hit two free throws with 3 seconds left.
Aaron had missed two free throws with 21 seconds remaining and De’Anthony Melton missed one with 34 seconds to go.
“When you miss two or three or four free throws at the end of the game, you give yourself a chance to lose,” Enfield said. “We didn’t lose tonight, but you saw in the NCAA Tournament last year we couldn’t make free throws.”
Washington came out hot in the teams’ second meeting in five days, with Matisse Thybulle (14 points) hitting three straight 3-pointers to put the 11th-seeded Huskies up 37-27.
But USC switching to a zone and Metu’s play inside fueled a 10-2 run to close the half. The Trojans took their first lead early in the second half on consecutive dunks by Metu.
Things unraveled for the Huskies from there. Malik Dime had to leave briefly with an apparent finger injury after blocking a shot. Then a foul and ensuing technical foul on Carlos Johnson led to Boatwright hitting four straight free throws and USC soon led by 14.
But late miscues led to some tense moments before Crisp’s straightaway 3 clanged off the rim.
“It’s on us as players,” guard Jordan McLaughlin said of USC’s inconsistency. “The coaches do a good job getting us ready for the game. Defensive strategy and everything, they set it up perfectly, and it’s on us to come and play with energy.”
Washington: Romar did sign Michael Porter Jr., the No. 1 player in the 2017 recruiting class, which could help him avoid getting fired.
USC: Thanks to a recent four-game losing streak and only two wins over AP Top 25 teams (UCLA, No. 12 SMU), falling to the downtrodden Huskies might have extinguished the Trojans’ NCAA Tournament hopes.
FULTZ’S LAST SHOT
Maybe Fultz should have tried to play while sitting on the bench. The freshman posted a video on his Twitter account from the shootaround in which he made a shot from the first row of the stands behind the basket.
Washington: Romar, the Pac-12’s longest-tenured coach, hopes to return for a 16th season. “I think that our administration is very supportive,” he said.
USC: The Trojans split two games with UCLA, but the last meeting was ugly. The Bruins rolled at home, 102-70 on Feb. 18, and are hoping to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.