KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) St. John’s guard Briana Brown couldn’t make a shot Saturday until it mattered most.
Brown sank a baseline 3-pointer with four-tenths of a second left to give the eighth-seeded Red Storm a thrilling 71-68 victory over No. 9 seed Southern California in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Brown had gone scoreless and had missed all five of her shots – including three from 3-point range – before hitting the game-winner.
”I know I hadn’t made a shot the whole game, but my teammates were behind me the whole way through, (saying), `You’re going to get that shot. You’re going to make the next one,’" Brown said. ”It happened to be the big one.”
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Southern California (22-13) nearly matched that last-second basket with one of its own.
Brianna Barrett’s desperation shot from at least 35 feet away hit the backboard and the front rim before harmlessly falling to the floor as the buzzer sounded.
”Honestly, I don’t think any of us realized how close it was to going in the basket,” St. John’s forward Amber Thompson said.
”Until it actually got there,” Brown added.
St. John’s (23-10) plays a second-round game Monday against No. 1 seed Tennessee, which beat Northwestern State 70-46 in Saturday’s other matchup at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Southern California had a six-game winning streak snapped.
St. John’s called a timeout with 25 seconds remaining to set up its final possession after a shot from Southern California’s Cassie Harberts spun out with 31 seconds left. St. John’s coach Joe Tartamella said he wanted to make sure his team took the last shot of the game. As the seconds ticked down, Keylantra Langley passed to Brown, who hit her shot from the baseline corner on the opposite end of the St. John’s bench to set off a wild celebration.
”I actually got a little light-headed because I was screaming so loud,” St. John’s guard Eugeneia McPherson said. ”We’ve actually practiced that play, and I always tell my head coach I hope it never comes down to it because every time we practiced it we missed it. But we made it when it counted, especially for our senior (Brown) to hit the shot.”
Aliyyah Handford scored 27 points and Amber Thompson had 10 points and 17 rebounds for St. John’s, which didn’t lead until 3:07 remained in the game. Barrett had 24 points and Ariya Crook had 16 for Southern California.
The heartbreaking loss ended a surprising season for Southern California. The Trojans earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 2006 in the first year under new coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, a two-time WNBA most valuable player who played on USC’s 1983 and 1984 national championship teams. The Trojans had gone 11-20 and had matched the highest loss total in school history last season.
”"I think we’re all disappointed in the loss, but that’s not what will define us this year,” Cooper-Dyke said. ”We had a great season. No one believed we could be here and yet here we sit.”
Before that thrilling final minute, both teams struggled to find a rhythm in a game that featured a combined 54 fouls and 64 free throws. St. John’s was 27 of 33 from the line, while Southern California was 24 of 31.
Although St. John’s reserve Jade Walker was the only player to foul out, four St. John’s players and three USC players finished with four fouls. Foul trouble may have played a role in a subpar performance for Harberts, who had eight points and six rebounds. Harberts, who has played and started more games than anyone in USC history, was averaging 15.6 points and 7.4 rebounds this season.
”We did a great job of getting back and not allowing easy position for her… but also we got her out of the game,” Tartamella said. ”We got her in foul trouble early, so her rhythm was taken away just like we had some foul problems throughout the game.”
After trailing 36-25 with less than five minutes left until halftime, St. John’s went on a 13-4 run that cut the lead to two points early in the second half. St. John’s finally tied the game on a pair of McPherson free throws with 12:23 remaining, and the game stayed tight the rest of the way.
St. John’s took its first lead of the game with 3:07 left when Langley scored from inside the paint. Amber Thompson’s layup extended the Red Storm’s lead to 68-65 with 1:39 left.
Crook answered with 1:19 left when she sank a game-tying 3-pointer, USC’s first basket since the 8:02 mark.