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USC basketball’s most devastating losses

By Rich Ruben

Last week I presented half of my list of the most devastating losses in Trojan basketball history, after previously listing the 12 most memorable wins. The list of losses represent huge missed opportunities and heartbreak games. Almost all USC basketball fans will likely agree on the two worst losses discussed below, and maybe even the top three. Numbers 4-6 leave more room for debate; number 4 is a loss of a different kind, and in the long run may have been the most devastating loss of all.

And when you’re done with this list, make sure you re-live the good moments as well, as previous versions of this list have ranked the most memorable wins in USC basketball history, starting with Nos. 7-12 and finishing with Nos. 1-6.

Here is a recap of USC basketball’s toughest losses, Nos. 7-12.

Number 12 – Penn From The Ivy League Beats Trojans By 38 In 2003

Number 11 – Kevin O’Neill’s 2012 Team Scores Only 36 Points In Home Loss To Cal Poly SLO

Number 10 – 2011 Team Squanders Opportunities To Beat Third Ranked Kansas On The Road

Number 9 – 1976 Trojans Lose Every Pac 8 Game

Number 8 – 1985 Team Loses Final Game And Fails To Win Outright Pac 10 Title

Number 7 – Stanford’s Half Court Heave At Final Buzzer Beats USC in 2018

If you are ready to relive some more tragic moments for USC basketball fans, here are the six most devastating losses.

Number 6

1969 Buzzer Beater From Half Court Forces OT And UCLA Wins In Double OT

This loss was incredibly painful when it happened, but the impact lasted only one day. USC closed out the season in 1969 with back to back games against the hated and undefeated Bruins and Lew Alcindor. On Friday night March 7, the teams met in the Sports Arena. With no shot clock, the Trojans used Bob Boyd’s soon to be famous stall offense, which they had practiced throughout the season but had not displayed until this game. UCLA played a zone defense, which allowed USC point guard Mack Calvin to dribble for extended periods, occasionally pass and get the ball right back, as USC waited for a very high percentage shot. The Trojans only took 20 shots from the field over the first 40 minutes. They made 8 of their 9 shots in the second half.

This Bruin team was loaded with talent and would go on to win the NCAA title, but they were very frustrated on defense, looking to John Wooden and his staff for instructions throughout the game. The Trojans led by 2 with only a few seconds left. The Bruins had to go the length of the court to attempt a shot to tie. Forward Lynn Shackelford received the inbounds pass at mid court and let fly with a 35-40 foot shot which banked in. Today, that would have been a three and UCLA would have won. Instead the game went two overtimes before the Trojans finally succumbed. 61-56.

The Disappointment and hurt felt by Boyd and his players was all consuming and the USC fans were right with them. But all of that was forgotten the next night in the rematch at Pauley. USC played the same very slow pace and won by 2 when forward UCLA Sidney Wicks’ shot from about the same place on the court as Shackelford’s the night before was slightly off. The Saturday win is number 1 on my list of USC’s most memorable wins.

A couple of interesting notes about players in these two games. In an age when freshmen could not play varsity sports, Alcindor scored 56 in his first college game as a sophomore against —– the Trojans. No wonder Boyd wanted to try a different approach.

Mack Calvin, USC’s 6’ 0” point guard, had an eleven-year pro career, including being a five-time ABA all star in the years before the ABA merged into the NBA. After he retired, he often said that the win that Saturday night over Big Lew and the Bruins was the highlight of his career.

Finally, it is worth noting who the Trojans played in their non conference games that season. Very different from today’s scheduling which includes many “cupcakes”. In order, they played at BYU, at Colorado, hosted LMU, played then number 6 Houston at home, ASU at home, number 6 Cincinnati at home, at Oklahoma, at Florida State, at Vanderbilt, and finished with three home games against Montana State, Tulsa and Utah.

Number 5

One Point Loss To Providence in 2016 NCAA Tournament

This game is included for a few reasons. First, it was Andy Enfield’s first tournament game at USC. Second, the Trojans had a big lead until they didn’t, and third, the winning shot went thru with less than two seconds left after a complete breakdown by the Trojan defense.

The Trojans shot the ball well, making 28-52 shots, and 7-13 from three. But poor free throw shooting and late turnovers were huge. At the 2 1/2 minute mark the Trojans led by 5. In those last minutes USC had two turnovers, no field goals, and were 1-4 from the line, including misses on the front end of one and ones. With 40 seconds left, and a one point lead, Jordan McLaughlin grabbed a rebound at the defensive end. Instead of trying to run clock, he quickly drove full court to try to beat the defense back and he missed a forced layup. The Trojans still led by 1 with 12 seconds left and Julian Jacobs on the line, but he missed the front end free throw. With three seconds left Providence inbounded the ball under its basket and USC still ahead by one. On the inbound play, Providence had a lot of movement and it resulted in one of their bigs standing all alone under the basket. Easy pass, uncontested layup, game over, 70-69.

McLaughlin led the Trojans with 15 points, Nikola Jovanovic had 14, and  Bennie Boatwright and Elijah Stewart both scored 11. Chimezie Metu played 10 minutes but didn’t score. The defense held Providence to 40% from the field and the Trojans won the battle in the paint by 12. But the Trojans didn’t have a second chance point and were outscored 16-2 in fast break points.

Providence lost two days later to a number one seed North Carolina. The Trojans got a measure of revenge the next year when they played Providence in an NCAA play-in game and won 75-71. But giving away the first NCAA game for USC since a 2011 play-in game loss was tough to take.

Number 4

Coaching Change Causes USC’s Three Freshman Stars To Leave After 1986 Season

This is not a typical “loss”, but in some ways it is the most devastating loss of them all. It changed the course of USC basketball history, and resulted in the Trojans losing their best ever chance for sustained excellence.

In Stan Morrison’s seven years at USC he achieved only limited success. Morrison’s 1986, team finished only 11-17, yet the future looked bright. His team was led by three outstanding freshmen. Forward Tom Lewis from Mater Dei HS was a top ten national recruit. 6’4” guard Bo Kimble and his best friend and high school teammate from Philadelphia, 6’7” forward Hank Gathers, were also very highly regarded.

The freshman played a lot in 1986. Lewis averaged 17.4 points per game, the fourth best mark for an USC freshman. He shot 84.7% from the line, best by any freshman and second highest career percentage for any Trojan. Kimble averaged 12.1 points, tied for 10th best by an USC freshman, and he has the 5th highest freshman free throw percentage at 77.1%.

Morrison was fired at the end of the season. The three freshmen had a close relationship with their now former coach, and they were vocal in their displeasure The Trojans soon hired George Raveling, who was a much bigger name in coaching circles after successful runs at Washington State and Iowa. The three players complained about not having input in the selection of the new coach and Raveling grew frustrated over the rumors that one or all might transfer. He eventually gave them a nudge out the door, so that he could get on with building his roster.

This was by far the worst decision of Raveling’s career. His first  two Trojan teams finished 9-19 and 7-21. On the other hand, the three players found a lot of success at their new homes. It was surprising that Lewis transferred to Pepperdine, rather than a basketball power. He averaged a very solid 18 points per game in his three years in Malibu, but never achieved the very high level of success that was predicted for him in high school and at USC.

More people are familiar with Kimble’s and Gathers’ careers. They transferred to LMU to play for Paul Westhead and his new run and gun system. Westhead’s Lions pressed full court all game, and when they got the ball everyone sprinted up court to look for a shot within the first ten seconds. He believed his team could out score anyone in a fast paced game, and they were very successful in forcing teams to play at their pace. The Lions went 28-4, 20-11, and 26-6 in Kimble’s and Gathers’ three seasons at LMU.

Kimble averaged 35.3 points as a senior, making 48% from the field, 46% from three, and 82% from the line. He was the 8th pick in the NBA draft, though he didn’t have much success in his three year pro career. 

Gathers exploded at LMU.  He led the country in both scoring and rebounding as a junior with 32.7 points and 13.7 boards, while making 59% of his shots. A national TV audience watched the Lions and Gathers play at LSU led by Shaquille O’Neal and fellow 7 footer Stanley Roberts. LMU lost in overtime, but the 6’7” Gathers had 48 points and 13 rebounds against the Tigers and became a national star.

During a West Coast Conference Tournament game at LMU in their senior season against the University of Portland, Gathers scored, walked tentatively back on defense, and collapsed at mid court. This happened once earlier in the year; tests found that Gathers had a heart condition. He didn’t always take the prescribed medication because he believed it occasionally caused him to feel “slow” or light headed. Gathers had a reduced blood flow to the heart, and this second time his body did not respond and he died that night. A statute of Gathers stands in front of Gersten Pavilion on the LMU campus. Interestingly the Portland team had a guard named Eric Mobley – yes, that Eric Mobley.

The story doesn’t end there. Even without Gathers, the Kimble led Lions as an 11th seed won their first two NCAA games and in the Sweet 16 humiliated defending national champion Michigan 149-115, in one of the most memorable NCAA Tournament games ever played. Their luck ran out in the Elite 8 against eventual champion UNLV.

If the three players and Raveling had worked things out, the history of USC basketball would be very different. Kimble and Gathers’ stats would not have reached the same astronomical numbers in a different system, but there is no reason to believe they would not have thrived. The Trojans would have certainly had good teams over the next three years with the threesome. Team success and their presence might have attracted other high caliber players, but regardless, their teams would have been almost immediately followed by the Harold Miner teams. Together those years would very likely have been the best decade for USC basketball by a wide margin and the trajectory of Trojan basketball would likely have been very different. The loss of these three players,  rather than any one game, may be the most devastating for the Trojans.

Number 3

UNC Wilmington Beats Trojans in First Round Of NCAA In 2002

Henry Bibby’s Trojans were coming off a run to the Elite 8 with most of the key players back for their senior year. The Trojans finished 22-10 in 2002. Sam Clancy, David Bluthenthal and Brandon Granville were all back. Brian Scalabrine was in the NBA and Jeff Trepagnier had graduated, but the Trojans had added guard Errick Craven who had a very strong freshman season and Desmon Farmer played very well off the bench.

The Trojans were a 4 seed and their first game was against UNCW, which was playing in its second ever NCAA Tournament game. In part because of the great tournament experience the core had from the prior year, many analysts were suggesting the Trojans might be a Final Four dark horse.

The Trojans trailed most of the game and needed a 31-12 run in the last 9 minutes to get to overtime tied at 80. Craven made a three point shot with 7 seconds left to tie the game. They were in the game despite making only 19-31 foul shots in the second half. USC made 43% of its shots, but UNCW made 60% of their two point attempts and 75% from the line 

The big comeback and heavy minutes wore the Trojans down. Clancy played all 45 minutes, and Granville played 42. When the extra period began, USC felt they were in good shape. UNCW’s leading scorer had fouled out and the Trojans had ended regulation on fire. But the Trojans could not maintain their hot finish. Bluthenthal fouled out midway thru the extra period with 19 points. The Trojans made only 2-9 shots in OT. They missed shots at the rim and gave the ball away a couple times in overtime, and wound up losing 93-89. The post season high hopes and expectations never materialized.

Number 2

Georgia Tech Miracle Buzzer Beater sinks Trojans In 1992 Tournament.

This was Harold Miner’s last season at USC, and as it turned out, his last game. The second seed Trojans opened the tournament with a 30 point win over Northeast Louisiana. Before the Trojans took the floor for their second game, the Midwest first seed Kansas and third seed Arkansas had already been upset, and the door was open for the Trojans to make the final four.

Miner was only 5-17 in this game for 18 points. Forward Yamen Sanders had 14, forward Mark Boyd scored 12 and guard Duane Cooper contributed 11. USC shot 48% from the field and 49% from three. Georgia Tech had 10 more turnovers, which led to USC having 14 more shots from the field, though each team made the same number of field goals. The rebounds were even. The Trojans were only 10-16 from the line; Tech made the same number of shots on 11 attempts.

Trojan guard Rodney Chatman duplicated his very late game winning shot the week before against Arizona. In this game he converted on a drive through the lane and  gave the Trojans a 2 point lead with 2.2 seconds left. Tech threw the inbound pass to mid court, where it bounced off Chatman’s leg and out of bounds. With 8/10 of a second left, the inbounds pass came to freshman forward James Forrest, who turned and heaved the ball from 35 feet. He had not taken a three point shot all season, but this prayer was answered for a 79-78 win.

For years CBS replayed that final “shot” whenever they put together NCAA buzzer beater shots during the Tournament. After the game, Raveling said he thought they could get to the Final Four. Instead the Trojans were out in the first weekend.

Number 1

Top Ranked USC Blows Lead and Loses To UCLA in 1971

USC came into this game 16-0 and ranked number 1 in the country.  The Bruins were 15-1 after being upset by Notre Dame. The Sports Arena was sold out and loud. The Trojans were led by two guards who Sports Illustrated labeled the best backcourt in the country, junior Paul Westphal and senior Dennis “Mo” Layton, and a skinny forward named Ron Riley who was a rebounding machine. This was Bob Boyd’s best team by a long stretch. The next year Layton was gone and Westphal missed the second half of that season with a broken arm.

USC led 59-50 with 9 minutes left. In the basketball equivalent of Pete Carroll not having Reggie Bush in the game for the fourth down attempt to close out Texas in the national championship game, Boyd took out both Westphal and Layton at the same time. The Trojans had a pretty good back up guard in Dana Pagett, but were not four deep. I’ve never seen an explanation for why Boyd took both out at the same time, nor why he didn’t call a timeout to get them back in.

With the high scoring guards on the bench, the Bruins went on a 10-0 run to take the lead, and the fight seemed to leave the Trojans. USC scored 1 point in the final 9 minutes and lost 64-60. The two teams met again at Pauley in the last game of the season. Both teams were 24-1, but the Bruins were in control and won by 11.

The NCAA Tournament field was much smaller in those days; two teams from the same conference couldn’t be in the Tournament, and under conference rules USC couldn’t play in the NIT either. The 24-2 Trojans watched March Madness on TV. No other Trojan team ever lost only two games except the 1920 team which finished 8-2, while playing the Riverside YMCA and the like and only Occidental among college teams; they split two games with Oxy.

There are a couple other story lines from this game. UCLA won the national title, but the tournament field consisted of only 24 teams rather than today’s 68, and in the preliminary rounds, teams from the west teams played only other western teams. The only team out west with a chance to beat UCLA in those years was Jerry Tarkanian’s Long Beach 49ers. In 1971 UCLA beat BYU and LB State (by 2) to reach the final four.

Some years later Boyd said that his teams could beat Wooden’s teams, but could not beat Sam Gilbert. Gilbert was a Bruin supporter who gave cars and clothes to Bruin players and recruits. The LA Times has said that Wooden knew what Gilbert was doing, though he was not directly involved. Without Gilbert, Wooden would not have the same recruiting success. Gilbert died in 1987. The Feds didn’t know he had died, and four days later Gilbert was indicted for racketeering and money laundering. Gilbert’s actions were well known. Tarkanian complained bitterly to the NCAA while at Long Beach and later at UNLV, but the NCAA focused instead on Tark’s own alleged violations.