LOS ANGELES — Hours before the 2011 Pac-12 semifinals, USC’s Bob Cantu was thrust into the position of head coach. The Trojans played a thriller against No. 16 Arizona, but ultimately fell in the final minutes in Cantu’s first and only game as a head coach.
This time around, the 12-year USC assistant had a little more notice, as he took over for ousted head coach Kevin O’Neill on Monday morning. But once again, USC took another ranked team down to the wire, this one being No. 21 Oregon, but couldn’t close, falling 76-74 Thursday night at the Galen Center.
“That was a great college basketball game,” Cantu said. “I’m just happy that the guys played hard and they didn’t give in, it would have been easy to give in.”
It came down to an exciting finish.
J.T. Terrell hit a 3 with 1:25 left to cut the Ducks’ lead to 75-72, bringing the crowd to its feet. With 33.1 on the clock, Terrell knocked down two free throws to make it a one-point game.
Coming out of the free throw, Johnathan Loyd pushed the ball ahead to Domonic Artis and Chass Bryan fouled Artis on the drive. Artis made one free throw, leaving USC needing a three to tie.
Jio Fontan then tried to play the role of hero with a triple that bounced off the rim. Teammate Eric Wise missed a tip-in on the rebound and Dewayne Dedmon grabbed that board, but his shot wouldn’t drop.
“He may have rushed (the shot) a little bit but it was a high-percentage shot,” Cantu said of Fontan’s 3. “We wanted to get something that was high-percentage and we were in position to rebound it but it just didn’t drop.”
Oregon (15-2, 4-0) is now looking like a formidable contender in the Pac-12, having won six in a row. The Ducks, 4-0 in conference play for the first time since the 1973-74, were led by a balanced scoring effort as all five starters scored in double-digits.
USC (7-11, 2-3) was paced by Terrell’s 22 points on 6-of-12 shooting.
The junior journeyman guard has seen his minutes vary significantly over the course of the season, being sparsely used at times but also making 11 starts. But Terrell should see his role grow as it he will benefit from Cantu’s faster, more free-flowing system than the technical, defensive-minded one that O’Neill ran.
“I was glad to see that J.T. stepped up and played how we knew he was capable of playing,” Cantu said.
It was an admittedly emotional game.
Terrell said the team was blindsided when it was announced that O’Neill was dismissed of his duties early Monday morning, giving them something extra to play for Thursday night.
“We just really wanted to win, everyone was real hungry for that W,” Terrell said. “(There was) a lot of emotions, us not knowing that was going to happen, even though that’s out of our control.
“At the end of the day we’ve still got a lot of season left and there’s still a lot that we can accomplish.”
USC opened up with a rough start from the field, going just 5 for 13 in the first 11 minutes, but finally recovered in time to give the Ducks a scare.
The Trojans managed to cut it to five with around five minutes left in the first half. Down 25-18, Bryan hit a step back jumper and was fouled. After missing the free throw, Dedmon crashed the glass and came away with the ball. Omar Oraby then finished off the possession with a turnaround hook in the paint, cutting the deficit to five.
USC went into the locker room down just four, 35-31. The Trojans managed to trim the lead to 45-44 with 15:16 remaining. The lead was trimmed to just one point again a few minutes later, and the Ducks hovered around the three-point mark throughout the first part of the second half.
But USC never was able to overtake the Ducks, failing to get key defensive stops down the stretch.
“I thought we played well in stretches,” Cantu said. “We weren’t consistent enough to get over the hump. We were still in it down the stretch, we had a couple tip-ins but they just didn’t drop.”
Added Terrell, “Tough loss. It’s never a good feeling when you lose a game that way when you get that many opportunities.”