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Ranking USC’s most memorable wins

By Rich Ruben

Last week I listed the bottom half of my top 12 most memorable basketball wins. Now I describe Numbers 1-6. It was tough selecting which of the two most memorable wins should be number one because they are both unforgettable.

Here’s a recap of wins number 7-12 from last week:

No. 12 – Adam Spanish makes two threes in last 2 1/2 seconds to beat Oregon

No. 11 – The Trojans beat UCLA three times by a combined 57 points

No. 10 – SC overcomes Stanford’s lead of 5 with 15 seconds left 

No. 9 – Trojans Beat Texas and Kevin Durant in NCAA Tournament 

No. 8 – Four overtime win over UCLA 

No. 7 – Miner scores his 2000th point in win over Arizona 

Number 6

Mathews Three Gives Trojans Win over UCLA in 2020 Final Game

In the post game celebration in early March no one had any thought that the Trojans and the senior class had played their last game. When the dust settled after the post season was cancelled, the Trojans were left with a great memory from what turned out to be their final game. Jonah Mathews ended his Trojan career and the season on senior night in dramatic fashion. Before a Bruin free throw with 9 seconds left and the score tied at 51, Coach Enfield called his final time out. A few minutes earlier Mathews made his fourth three of the game to set a new SC career mark for made threes. 

It had been a game dominated by both defenses. The Bruins finished 16-51 (31%) from the field and 6-18 from three. The Trojans made 41% of their shots, threes, and free throws. The Bruins were still in the game because they had a sensational night at the line, and the Trojans were 5-12, including misses at the front end of 1 and 1s. 

In the final timeout Enfield called a play for Mathews to have the ball. UCLA made the free throw and the Trojans brought the ball into Mathews, who didn’t face pressure in the back court, likely because the Bruins wanted to limit the chance of a foul. Mathews took his time advancing the ball to the top of the key where Onyeka Okongwu set a screen, giving Mathews three options against the UCLA man defense. If both defenders stayed with Mathews, Okongwu would be open to roll to the rim. If the Bruin guard fought thru the screen, Mathews could drive to the basket without a big defender protecting the rim and try to score or get fouled. Or if the Bruins defense switched on the screen which they usually did, Jonah should have room for a shot over a bigger but much slower player. 

The defense did switch, and the defender could not get out on Mathews soon enough to contest his shot. Mathews stepped back into a rhythm three that he knew was good as soon as it left his hand. The ball went thru the net with one second left. A final Bruin shot beyond mid court wasn’t close, which was good because the Trojans had already started celebrating.

Mathews made 5-9 three pointers and had 19 points. Okongwu was 8-12 from the field for 16 points, and freshman point guard Ethan Anderson had 7 assists and no turnovers. Mathews had never before made a Buzzer beating final shot. After the game Mathews said that he would never forget senior night, this game, or “the shot.”  The win had post season ramifications for both teams, though it would turn out a few days later it wouldn’t matter. SC’s win dropped the Bruins from first to second place in the conference and lifted the Trojans into a tie for third and a bye in the first round of the PAC 12 Tournament. 

Mathews, his teammates and the coaches will always wonder “what if.” They finished that night with the best three game stretch in years, beating good Arizona, ASU and Bruin teams. That night they all believed they had a good chance to win the PAC 12 Tournament and make a run in the NCAA Tournament. The following week their dreams and the dreams of many other teams around the country were gone, but these Trojans will have this game and “the shot” to remember for a long time.

Number 5

2016 Four Overtime Win Over Arizona 

The Wildcats came to Galen ranked number 7 in the country. The Trojans had several good young players and the 6700 fans would see a tremendous game.  SC led by 12 with 5 1/2 minutes left, but couldn’t close it out. It eventually took four overtimes, equivalent to another half of basketball, for USC to finally win 103-101 on two free throws by Elijah Stewart with 23 seconds left. On the final Arizona possession the Trojans twice poked the ball away and forced the Wildcats into a very difficult final shot.

Stewart had one of his best games as a Trojan, finishing 9-13 and 27 points. Jordan MacLaughlin and Nikola Jovonovic both scored 17, and Bennie Boatwright had 15. Julian Jacobs scored 18 points and had 9 assists. The Cats were led by Alonzo Trier and big man Kaleb Tarczewski. 

USC finished 21-13 in 2016 and lost in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. 

Number 4

USC Beats Ohio State In Overtime In 1992

Harold Miner was the best Trojan player ever by a wide margin and at times 1992 felt like a magical season. SC closed the regular season ranked number 8 and was awarded a second seed in the NCAA Tournament. If you haven’t seen this game, you should find it. USC won 79-77 in overtime. A few weeks before beating number 2 ranked Arizona (game number 7 on my list), fourth ranked OSU came to the Sports Arena. Both teams had first team All American guards, Miner for the Trojans and Jimmy Jackson for the Buckeyes. Miner finished with 31 points and Jackson had 28. 

It is impossible to adequately describe the final game winning play in overtime. After a Jackson miss, the Trojans got the ball to the front court, but were left with one second for a final shot inbounding the ball underneath the basket. Miner started from the top of the key and with a quick move beat his man into the lane to collect an alley oop Inbound pass. He was able to quickly pull up without charging into an OSU big who was directly in front of him, and somehow stopped his body in mid air with enough body control to grab the pass and score while avoiding the charge. The winning basket was Miner’s only points in overtime. 

Miner led the Trojans in scoring in every game but two that season, and led the team in rebounds nine times. Earlier in the year he scored 41 against Nebraska. He had an array of moves near the basket and rarely went inside without either scoring or being fouled. He had the most unusual ritual at the foul line. He wrapped the ball around his back, dribbled once between his legs, wrapped both arms around the ball and then touched the ball to his nose. With this unorthodox routine he converted 80% of his free throws.

A final note about Miner and the ‘92 Trojans. Against number 4 UCLA the Trojans won 83-79 in front of a then record home crowd of 15,517 at the Sports Arena. The Bruins were led by their front court featuring Don McLean (who would become the conference all time leading scorer) and Tracy Murray and reserve forward Ed O’Bannon (who would become the National Player of the Year in his final season). The 13th ranked Trojans won with Miner scoring 29 points and grabbing 15 rebounds including 8 offensive boards- and he was an average size guard! Perhaps the best ever statistical game by a Trojan. 

Number 3

USC Beats ASU To Win 2009 Pac 10 Tournament

The  Trojans won their only conference tournament title in 2009. In earlier rounds at Staples the Trojans beat Cal by 4 and UCLA by 20. UCLA was second in the league and Cal and ASU tied for third. SC tied for fifth, though down the stretch the Trojans played their best basketball of the season. USC’s best player was freshman DeMar DeRozan who finished the year very strong. Coach Tim Floyd had the other Trojans also peaking at the right time. 

The team finished 22-13, after sweeping the Oregon schools on the last weekend of the regular season, winning three games at Staples and beating Boston College in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before losing in the second round by 5 points to Michigan State in a game with a couple questionable late calls. 

The ASU title game went back and forth, with the Trojans final winning 66-63 after James Harden missed a last second shot over the outstretched hand of Taj Gibson. Harden won the conference Player of the Year Award, but DeRozan was the tournament MVP. He was joined on the All Tournament team by Gibson and Duane Hackett. 

When USC played them at Staples UCLA was ranked no 15 and ASU number 19. Several Trojans had good seasons. Gibson led the conference with 100 blocked shots and finished third with 316 rebounds. Hackett tied for the league lead with 166 assists. DeRozan had the third most points ever for a USC freshman (until was passed this season by Onyeka Okongwu). DeRozan averaged 13.9 points in his only college season. 

Number 2

USC Beats Kentucky To Reach The Elite 8 In 2001

The Sixth seed Trojans had a pretty good season and capped it off with a great post season run. They finished 24-10 before losing in the Elite Eight to Duke. Trojans got off to a big lead over second seed Kentucky, but had to hold on for a 80-76 victory, a win no one saw coming. USC led 25-8 after the first 12 minutes and led by 21 early in the second half. The Trojans had turnover problems trouble throughout much of the second half, helping Kentucky cut into the margin but the Wildcats could not come all the way back. David Bluthenthal led USC with 27 points on 7-13 from the field and 7-8 from the line. Sam Clancy made 6-12 shots and had 17 points, Brian Scalabrine scored 13 and Brandon Granville contributed 7 points and 8 assists. 

Players on this team are among USC’s career leaders in many categories, and several had great seasons in 2001. Clancy made 50% of his shots that season, Scalabrine almost 48% and Bluthenthal 47% overall and 40.9% from three. Granville made 37% of his shots from three and had 207 assists. He had 248 assists the prior year, and is the SC career assist leader with 41 more than Jordan MacLaughlin. Granville is also SC’s all time career leader in steals. Clancy is third on the Trojans’ career scoring list and fourth in career rebounds. Bluthenthal tied the SC record for rebounds in a single game the year before with 28 against ASU.  Scalabrine is 12th in career points in only three years, Granville is 13th and Bluthenthal 19th and he is third in career free throw percentage at 80%.

Number 1

1969 Trojans Hand UCLA Its First Ever Loss at Pauley

This win was a monumental accomplishment on so many fronts. UCLA with Lew Alcindor was undefeated and ranked number 1 and went on to win the NCAA Title. They had won 41 in a row, and 17 in a row against USC. They had never lost at Pauley. Their average margin of victory was 21 points. SC was a respectable team without a star and finished 15-11 for the season.

Coach Bob Boyd knew his Trojans could not match the Bruins’ talent. He decided to use a “stall” or slow down offense, which could be employed in the pre shot clock era.  For years Hall of Fame North Carolina coach Dean Smith employed his Four Corners offense to close games when they had a lead. The four corners placed one player in each corner of the front court which gave a lot of space to a good ball handling guard dribbling around the court and passing to unguarded teammates if he was double teamed.  They would often run two or three minutes off the game clock on a single possession. 

USC finished 1969 third in the Pac 8, and averaged 71 points per game. Boyd had the Trojans practice a slow down offense for weeks before closing the season with two games against UCLA. Boyd had his Trojans employ the stall for the entire game to try slow down the fast paced Bruins. UCLA students had “Stalls Are For Horses” signs in the stands as USC played very slow the whole game, at times frustrating the Bruins. Boyd knew that the stall could only work if USC led or was behind by only a few points; if the Bruins took a sizable lead, it would force USC to play at a faster pace. 

Big Lew was probably the most dominating player to play college basketball since at least Wilt Chamberlin, and maybe ever. He was 7’1 1/2” and very athletic. He was guarded by Ron Taylor, USC’s own 7’ 1” center, but Alcindor could get around Taylor before Taylor knew what happened. Alcindor averaged 24 points and 14.7 rebounds that season, often playing only 20-25 minutes because the Bruins built huge leads. Years later I heard Taylor was working as a house painter; he did interior ceilings. Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and is the all time scoring leader in NBA history. 

UCLA also had All American guard Lucius Allen and sharp shooting forward Lynn Shackelford plus a pair of star sophomore forwards in 6’9”Sidney Wicks and 6’7” Curtis Rowe. The pair would lead the team over the next two seasons. 

USC countered with point guard Mack Calvin who averaged 12 points and was a good ball handler. Forward Ernie Powell averaged 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds, but was only 6’5”. Forward Don Crenshaw at 6’6” was a great leaper, but an inconsistent shooter and averaged 9 points. Taylor averaged 13.2 points and 9.2 boards and played well against teams without height or quickness. UCLA had both. 

USC was able to use the stall the entire game. Players moved and cut thru the lane on every possession trying to get a very good shot. For the stall to work, USC had to limit turnovers and offensive fouls. They had been instructed not to take a shot unless it was a very high percentage opportunity. They held the ball for multiple minutes on some possessions patiently waiting for a great opening. The Bruins liked to fast break and used John Wooden’s famous full court zone press, but with few Trojan missed shots there weren’t many chances to run the break, and Calvin did a very good job of breaking the press. 

The score was tied at 44 and the Trojans were working for a last shot. Powell sunk one of the more difficult shots of the night with six seconds left from about 12-15 feet out on the left baseline. Wicks was forced into a desperation heave from near mid court as time ran out, and the Trojans had done the impossible. They won agaIn at Pauley the next year giving the Bruins their second ever home loss at Pauley. That year USC had a new and more talented roster and played at a normal pace. Alcindor, Allen and Shackelford were gone and USC’s team could compete and win without gimmicks.