Trojans Stage Comeback But Fall Short, Lose to Cal 68-66
USC senior Donte Smith made eight 3-pointers and scored a career-high 24 points, but he only attempted one shot in the final 3:37 and barely touched the ball on USC's final two possessions.
Instead, on the final possession, Jio Fontan pulled up for a 3-pointer from the left wing.
Fontan's potential game-winner bounced off the front of the rim and fell harmlessly to the floor giving Cal (10-9, 3-4) a 68-66 victory at the Galen Center.
"If we had time, we were going to set a pin down [screen] for Donte on the weak side," a somber coach Kevin O'Neill said of the final play.
USC (11-9, 3-4) could not get stops down the stretch. Only twice in the final 5:33 did Cal possessions not end with points -- once on a turnover and once when they missed a pair of free throws.
Four Golden Bears players scored in double figures, led by Harper Kamp's 19 points. The only reason the Trojans had a chance at the end was because Cal missed four of their final six free throws.
"We definitely had our chances," O'Neill said. "We had opportunities. We just didn't end up finishing the right way."
-- BREAKING IT DOWN --
Key moment: Basketball referees normally try to avoid making calls that will decide a game.
Not so, Saturday night.
With USC trailing 58-57 with just over three minutes left in the game, Cal missed a jumper and Bears big man Harper Kamp grabbed an offensive rebound.
What happened next led to much debate.
The referees originally called a two-shot shooting foul on Trojan guard Jio Fontan. The original call made it through the media timeout, but as the teams came out of the break and began to take their places for a regular two-shot foul, the referees reconvened and decided to review the foul on the courtside television monitors.
When the refs finally came out of their huddle around the replay monitors, they changed the foul to an intentional foul.
The switch not only gave the Bears two free throws but also the ball back. Cal converted the extra possession into two points on a hook shot by Mark Sanders-Frison.
With the two made free throws by Kamp and the hook shot by Sanders-Frison, the Trojans went from down one to down five in a matter of 15 seconds.
Thank you, referees.
Player of the game: Donte Smith.
En fuego. That's what Smith was Saturday night. He scored 24 points and set a career high, making eight 3-point baskets, including six of his eight second half attempts. During one stretch, Smith knocked down 3-pointers on four consecutive USC possessions.
"Donte's night was big. He was our spark off the bench," Jio Fontan said. "He changed the game for us."
He was only one 3-pointer shy of tying the USC single-game record held by Anthony Pendleton -- Pendleton made nine threes against Long Beach State in December of 1987.
Smith's 24 points also bested his previous career high of 22 that he set earlier in the season against Northern Arizona.
Most Spectacular Play: Maurice Jones caught a reversal pass form Jio Fontan and saw nothing but hardwood between himself and the rim. When Jones accelerated to the rim, the tower that is Cal's 6-foot-10 Richard Solomon made a late rotation and collided with Jones in midair.
As Jones was nearly horizontal, he had enough sense to flip the ball up, and, with a little touch and a ton of luck, the layup fell through the net.
Listed at 5-foot-7, Jones may be the shortest player on the court, but he made the under six-foot world jump to its feet, showing off his bunnies with this "And 1" play at the 11:54 mark of the second half. The miraculous shot sparked a 15-3 run by the Trojans that allowed them to get back into the game and take a short-lived lead.
With the transfer of Bryce Jones, the Trojans' already limited bench got even smaller. Players from the bench are going to have to log more minutes and produce better results in increased roles.
Saturday night, Garrett Jackson did just that.
Playing six more minutes than his season average of 10, Jackson scored eight points -- more than double his points per game average (3.5). He also ripped down six rebounds, which is more than three times his season average (1.7). But it wasn't just Jackson's improved stats that make him the Unsung Hero. It was the plays that don't show up on the stat sheet.
Jackson was all over the court. He kept balls alive, he played hard-nosed defense on Cal's leading scorer, Harper Kamp, and he ran the floor hard trying to help the Trojans get easy transition buckets.
He was even able to hit a pair of 3-pointers, including a clutch one in the final minute that gave the Trojans a shot at the end.
"Step It Up:" Nikola Vucevic.
USC's leading scorer was held to just six points and struggled to play through foul trouble.
Vucevic also received a blow to the face around the 13-minute mark of the first half and it bothered him throughout the game.
"Nik got hit in the mouth and really never got back in the game at all," O'Neill said. [He] let that injury take him out completely."
O'Neill later said if Vucevic plays at the next level, "he's going to get hit a lot harder than that."
Even though he got whacked in the face and bit through his tongue, he has to be a rock in the middle of the lineup for USC.
The Trojans can't afford for Vucevic to have an off night. When he scores fewer than 10 points this season, USC is just 1-3.
Last season, they were 5-7 in the same situation.
"You have to learn how to play through every situation if you ever want to do this stuff for a living," O'Neill said. "And you have to be able to deal with adversity through the course of games."
Key stat: 2-for-7. That would be Alex Stepheson's free throw shooting. That is 28.6 percent. Yikes. If he had lived up to his season average of 48.4 percent, we could be saying that USC outlasted Cal on the strength of Stepheson’s free throws.
The senior power forward is a load for defenders down low. He uses his size and strength to bully most guys that try to body him. However, if he ever beats his defender or has an open layup, opponents can just foul him.
It's the smart decision considering the fact Stepheson is now shooting a dismal 48.4 percent from the charity stripe. The term free throw means that no player may contest your shot while you are shooting, but maybe O’Neil should ask if they can change the rule for Stepheson, who is shooting 56.7 percent from the field this year.
USC should hope teams will not institute the hack-a-Alex play in their scouting reports
Sideline Strategy: Normally coaches save the offensive-defensive substitutions for the end of games, but with Marcus Simmons not making open shots and USC trailing in the second half, coach Kevin O’Neill was forced to use the strategy earlier.
Enter Donte Smith.
”Marcus wasn’t making any shots and we had to see if Donte could make a few,” O'Neill said.
Smith did his part, swishing six second half 3-pointers. The substitution looked good on the offensive end, but on the defensive end it left holes. Cal coach Mike Montgomery noticed the openings when Simmons wasn't in the game.
"They felt like they had to take Marcus Simmons out of the game in the zone because we weren’t guarding him," Montgomery said. "Simmons is a tremendous defender so when he came out that really opened up another avenue for us.”
Where They Stand: With their first home conference loss, the Trojans are reeling. They are still tied for fifth in the Pac-10 standings, thanks to a loss by Stanford, but now have a losing record in the conference.
At 11-9, USC is not sitting pretty as a potential at-large selection for the NCAA Tournament. Losing on the road wasn't bad, but you can't lose on your home court, especially to a team that was below you in the standings.
The Trojans are going to need their core seven to come together and play well at the same time when they hit the road next week to travel to Arizona and Arizona State. The impending sojourn east may end up being the most important road trip of the season.
If USC sweeps, it could potentially be the turning point in the season, but losing both games could end up being the final nail in the Trojans' hardwood coffin.
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