Reporting from Tucson — Every season has an expiration date. Most teams determine their own. USC didn’t. Its administration settled on Saturday as the Trojans’ last game. So it goes.
But with nothing to play for, the Trojans played as though they didn’t want it all to end — and it wasn’t until the buzzer sounded after the second overtime that it did. So it goes.
The final score of USC’s 2009-10 season: Arizona 86, Trojans 84. The Wildcats’ Nic Wise made a layup with 1.2 seconds left, giving USC its fifth straight loss.
The Trojans’ season now goes to the media guides, where their final record — 16-14 overall, 8-10 in Pacific 10 Conference play — will get an asterisk noting the postseason ban imposed by USC’s higher-ups for recruiting allegations surrounding O.J. Mayo.
It will not note injuries or ineligible players, nor will it note players from last season who left early or recruits who never came. “We did . . . a whole lot better than people thought we would,” said guard Dwight Lewis, who scored a game-high 21 points.
Overcoming obstacles was this team’s modus operandi, and, fittingly, Saturday featured one more.
With USC leading, 69-66, Nikola Vucevic was called for fouling Arizona’s Kyle Fogg on a desperation three-point shot with 0.2 seconds left in the second half. Fogg made all three free throws, sending the game to overtime.
USC Coach Kevin O’Neill was livid when the call was made. “Everyone saw what went on out there,” he said. “Everybody knows. They can go home and celebrate all they want. Everybody saw what went on.”
Said Vucevic: “I didn’t touch anything. I just went up with my hand in the air so he couldn’t see the basket.”
The Trojans fought back in the first overtime to send it to a second, and it took Wise’s layup to finish them off. “Honestly, if we’re going to lose, I’d rather lose going out like that,” guard Mike Gerrity said.
O’Neill told his players after the game that they would be a team he’d always remember and that when they’re sitting around 10 years from now, they should remember how they “really played their hearts out every single day with the worst of all odds.”
He added: “If all my future teams play hard like this team, we’ll win a lot of games in this league.”
The future for next season, which is tentatively scheduled to start Nov. 13 when USC plays host to UC Irvine, is bright in spots, but dark in others.
The Trojans return five of their top eight scorers, and their talented recruiting class boasts four players who will boost an offense that averaged just 59.6 points this season.
Fordham transfer Jio Fontan, a sophomore point guard, and freshmen guards Maurice and Bryce Jones are probable starters — along with returning forwards Vucevic and Alex Stepheson — and 6-foot-6 wing player Garrett Jackson, called by some the steal of the class, also figures to play considerable minutes. “I have a lot of faith in the young guys coming in,” O’Neill said.
Fontan, a former Atlantic 10 rookie of the year, is especially crucial with next season’s young perimeter. He won’t be eligible until late December, but he is a major upgrade offensively and defensively at the point guard position. “I feel like I can take over games,” Fontan said.
Vucevic said he’ll go home Montenegro to play in the European under-21 championship this summer. This season, he was USC’s breakout player, and Stepheson could be next in line, if he can learn to be aggressive for more than five-minute stretches.
“With the people they’ve got coming back next year, they’ll be a team to reckon with, especially with the people they’ve got coming in,” Lewis said.
Still, with a nonconference schedule that includes Texas, Kansas, Tennessee, Nebraska and possibly Marquette, the team could struggle early. Much also depends on the outcome of USC’s recent hearing with the NCAA Committee on Infractions, which is expected to be announced in the next month or two.
It’s also likely that O’Neill will shake up his coaching staff. Three of his assistants are holdovers from when Tim Floyd coached the team last season.
For now, O’Neill will hit the road recruiting, starting today. As for his players, they can finally rest.