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USC overcomes 17-point deficit to beat Providence in First Four

03.16.17 at 7:40 am ET
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Providence fell in the First Four Wednesday night. (Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports)

Providence fell in the First Four Wednesday night. (Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports)

To spin a phrase once written so capably by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

And that literally is what Providence is left with after losing a 17-point second half lead to Southern Cal in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament in Dayton, Ohio Wednesday night. The Friars, in as sharp a half as they played all season, led the Trojans by 15 points at halftime, and by 17 early in the second period.

They ended up losing, 75-71, to end the season at 20-13. USC (25-9) advances to Tulsa, Oklahoma to face 6th seeded SMU Friday afternoon.

“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”

Dickens’ chosen word of foolishness might not describe the second half of play for the Friars, but whatever it was, it wasn’t pretty. After torching the Trojans’ defense for 44 points and 55% field goal shooting in the first half, PC suddenly lost its aggressiveness on the offensive end as USC switched from a zone to man-to-man.

Additionally, the bigger Trojans pounded the Friars on the backboards, with a 21-9 rebound margin in the final 20 minutes. Included in that total were nine huge offensive rebounds, and the extra chances – not to mention the extra time off the clock – proved the Friars’ undoing.

“I think the second half we just didn’t play,” said Ed Cooley afterward, understating what was painfully obvious to the Friar Faithful. “I thought they played harder than us in the second half. I thought they were tougher. I think some of our early miscues (in the second half) gave them some energy and I just didn’t think we were tough.”

“We weren’t playing with the same passion we were in the first half, and it showed,” Jalen Lindsey added, after scoring 17 points for the Friars. “And they executed their game plan and we kind of faltered back.”

“We got into the paint a lot,” said USC guard Jordan McLaughlin, whose penetration into the Friar zone was a key to the comeback. “Once we got into the paint, everybody’s playing on two feet and making the right passes and right decisions. We were making the layups and knocking down jump shots.”

“We started switching one through four,” was coach Andy Enfield’s explanation for the turnaround. “Then we went big. And we played big for at least 10, 12 minutes of the game. We haven’t done that all season. For our players to adjust to that, that was impressive.”

Indeed, it was. Trailing 44-29 at the half, Enfield sent in his larger unit (three players 6-10 or taller) after PC extended the lead to 17 in the opening minute of the second period. The play of 6-11 freshman forward Nick
Rakocevic was a big part of the comeback, scoring seven of his nine points in the paint, and his physical play helped spark a huge 25-10 Trojan run over an 8:27 span.

The Friars never recovered, and never led again after giving the lead away. The comeback from 17 points down is the 7th greatest comeback in NCAA tournament history. That USC led the nation this season in making up double-digit deficits (with 12 wins after trailing by 10 points or more) wasn’t lost on Ed Cooley or his team.

“I just didn’t think as a group we were fundamentally sound the last 20 minutes in order to advance in this tournament,” Cooley reasoned. “Those kids are hurting in there (in the locker room). I’m proud of our group this season. I think we had a year no one expected.”

Certainly, no one expected the way the game ended. Not after a stunning first half by Providence, and an equally stunning fall in the second half.

Perhaps the best way to describe it – it was a tale of two halves? It wasn’t exactly the best of times for the Friars, to be sure.

FIRST FOUR NOTES

Emmitt Holt led Providence with an 18-point, 11-rebound double-double effort. Rodney Bullock added 17 points, along with Lindsey’s 17, but junior guard Kyron Cartwright finished with just nine points and took only two offensive shots all night. His SoCal counterpart, McLaughlin, outscored and outplayed the Compton, CA native with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double effort of his own. 6-10 sophomore center Bennie Boatwright scored a season high 24 points, 14 in the first half. 6-11 sophomore Chimezie Metu, the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player this season, added 15 more with eight rebounds.

Overall, the rebound margin figured in USC’s favor, 36-27, after the Friars had an 18-15 edge on the bigger Trojans in the first half. PC also shot lights out from the floor – hitting 8 of 15 three’s and connecting on 55% overall in the opening 20 minutes. Turnovers and missed free throws – recent problems for Providence – weren’t the reason they lost, however. The Friars finished with nine turnovers (six in the second half), and hit a respectable 12-of-17 from the line. They were, however, outscored 20-12 from the line (20-of-27 overall) by USC.

The attendance for the two-night double header was 23,383, as the First Four in Dayton has averaged more than 23,000 fans in each of the last five years.

If you’re looking ahead, the Friars do return their five starters from the game for next season, without a single scholarship senior on the roster. The arrival of 6-11 freshman Dajour Dickens and 6-8 forward Nate Watson will certainly bolster an inside game that was overpowered at times by bigger teams, as was the case in the second half against USC.

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