LOS ANGELES—Jordan McLaughlin had been running around all game long.
From coast to coast, the junior point guard had been scoring nearly at will and attacking the rim with authority on his way to a game-high 20 points. With 37 seconds left, however, McLaughlin had to slow down completely and step up to the free-throw line to try and give USC a slim one-point lead.
One free-throw bounced off the rim. The other rattled out.
On the ensuing play for Cal, forward Ivan Rabb was fouled and stepped up to the line to try and do the same. He hit both with ease amid the loud Galen Center crowd.
With five seconds left, there was enough time for McLaughlin to try and do what he did at the end of the first half: Hit a buzzer-beating shot. This time, for the win.
But instead of a pull-up shot this time, McLaughlin opted for a drive to the hoop. That's where he found Rabb, who vertically imposed himself in front of the rim and blocked McLaughlin's game-winning try, giving Cal the slim 74-73 victory in a back-and-forth thriller that featured 13 lead changes and 12 ties.
"We got exactly what we wanted," Enfield said of the final shot. "There was a lot of contact at the rim. On his drive he got bumped and there was no call. Five and half seconds left, you can't ask for more."
McLaughlin concurred, saying he was looking to make the layup or to draw a foul, even though a trip to the foul line would not have exactly guaranteed a victory. That's because McLaughlin, normally an 80% free-throw shooter, missed five of his eight attempts in the game. USC, as a team, shot 47% from the charity stripe. Cal shot a slightly better 50%.
“That’s where we lost the game.” McLaughlin said of the team’s free-throw shooting. “It was just one of those nights.”
Apart from the uncharacteristically poor free-throw shooting, USC thrived offensively, especially against an athletic and long Cal team that came into the game ranked eighth in the country in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.
"They're a great defensive team, but I thought we handled their defensive schemes fairly well," Enfield said.
The Trojans shot 50% from the field and made 58% of their three-point shots—both numbers better than what they shot from the easiest spot on the court. Cal did the same, but they were able to both dominate the paint and the boards thanks to the performance of Ivan Rabb.
Sophomore Chimezie Metu had the toughest task of the night, as he guarded and went up against Rabb. The matchup between the two big men grabbed the attention of Metu even before tip-off and it ended up with both players getting their punches in.
“I knew it was going to be a battle coming in,” Metu said. “I just tried to stay focused and slow him down offensively.
Rabb scored 17 points and grabbed eight boards, while Metu scored 20 points—10 straight at one point in the first half. Metu's six rebounds to Rabb's eight would be emblematic of the other place where USC failed to measure up to their Pac-12 North opponents: The boards.
The Trojans were out-rebounded 35-28 in the game, but it was more what happened after those rebounds that would be costly for USC. Cal scored 18 second-chance points, while USC could only counter with six.
With Bennie Boatwright still out with an injury, USC's bench scoring had also proved to be essential to the Trojans' recent victories and 15-1 record. But on Sunday night, USC was outscored 16-10 in bench points as well. Freshman De'Anthony Melton, who started, finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists as well as two blocks and three steals.
In the end, however, it would not be enough, as the final result pointed back to the free-throws as the culprit. Had USC made half of the 11 free-throws it missed, the game's result would have favored them instead.
"When a guy who is shooting 80% from the foul line and goes 3-for-8, you can't explain that." Enfield, who was visibly frustrated with the referees and the result, said of McLaughlin. "I don't have all the answers."
Answers now must come quickly for the Trojans as they head into the heart of Pac-12 play and go to Utah and Colorado next week hoping to stay in contention for the top half of the conference. Now at 2-2 in conference play, the loss to Cal hurts on multiple levels, as both teams will be looking to earn that fourth spot behind conference juggernauts UCLA, Oregon and Arizona. The Trojans now have an uphill climb with two of those tough opponents still on their schedule twice.
"This week leading up to these two games were some of our hardest practices, after the Oregon loss," McLaughlin said when asked how they would bounce back. "We'll prepare like we prepared this week."