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USC’s Most Devastating Basketball Losses

By Rich Ruben

This is the third of a four-part series describing USC’s 12 most memorable basketball wins and the 12 most devastating losses. Today’s third part will cover the 7th – 12th most devastating losses. Next week will address the top six. Unfortunately there  are a lot of big losses to choose from given the roller coaster history of Trojan basketball, which has had more downs than ups.

In the last 60 years the Trojans have one conference regular season championship, tied for the top regular season spot one other time, and won one conference tournament championship.

If you missed it, here are parts one and two of this series, containing the most memorable wins in USC basketball history:

Part 1: No. 12 – No. 7 of USC basketball’s most memorable wins

Part 2: No. 6 – No. 1 of USC basketball’s most memorable wins

And now, the countdown from No. 12 to No. 7 of USC basketball’s most devastating losses.

Number 12

Penn Beats The Trojans By 38 in 2003 “Home” Game

The Trojans under coach Henry Bibby were coming off two good seasons which ended in the NCAA Tournament, including the 2001 team which lost to Duke in the Elite 8. By 2003 most of those players were gone, and USC finished 13-17 and tied for 6th place in the Pac-10 at 6-12. USC had played Penn from the Ivy League six times over the years and were only 3-3 against the Quakers before the 99-61 drubbing in 2003.

The game was played at the Forum. The Trojans sometimes were forced to play there when competing events were booked at the Sports Arena. This game was preempted by Disney on Ice. Penn had a good season in 2003 and won the Ivy League before losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but losing by 38 to an Ivy League school should never happen.

The Quakers had a tremendous shooting game, helped by awful Trojan defense. USC had one good stretch the entire night and closed to within 25-22, but Penn then went on a big run and led 53-27 at the half. The stats were unbelievable: Penn made 87% of their first half shots and 72% for the game. They out rebounded the Trojans 16-7 in the first half and outscored the Trojans 22-8 in the paint. They made shots from everywhere including 15-20 from three for the night.  The crowd was small, and Penn fans took over with a loud chorus of “Let’s Go Quakes” during much of the game.

The Trojans that season were led by Desmon Farmer’s 18.7 points per game, Errick Craven’s 13 and Rory O’Neil’s 10.

Number 11

Trojans Lose At Home To Cal Poly SLO

The 2012-2013 season was Kevin O’Neill’s final full season at USC. In December of the next season the players went en masse to Athletic Director Pat Haden and recited events involving O’Neill, demanded a coaching change and Haden agreed. O’Neill was fired mid-season. The big question was why he was ever hired. Everyone in basketball circles knew his reputation for belittling players, tantrums on the bench and in the locker room, pointing fingers when something went wrong, and lack of creativity. He was also famous for his face turning a bright red while screaming during games. At USC one more quality was exposed: he was a horrible recruiter. This is the same Kevin O’Neill who got into a fight with an Arizona fan at a hotel during the Pac-12 Tournament; the same coach whose wife was forced to sit in an empty upper suite at Galen for her role in the altercation. When Andy Enfield was hired, Haden stated publicly that Enfield inherited a roster of mostly non Pac-12 level players.

The Trojans finished 6-26 on the season. In that miserable year, there was one loss that stood out. Cal Poly beat the Trojans 42-36 at Galen. Since the shot clock came into the game, it became almost impossible to hold a team to 42 points and still lose. USC scored ten fewer points than the 1969 team scored while playing a stall the entire game to beat UCLA and Lew Alcindor. The 2013 Trojan team was unwatchable. 

Eric Wise led USC in scoring that year at 11.9 points per game, and Dewayne Dedmon led with seven rebounds per game. Byron Wesley was a sophomore on that team, Jim Fontan a senior, and Omar Oraby a junior. It was one of the worst USC teams In decades.

Number 10

The 2011 – 2012 Trojans Lose a Heart Breaker At Kansas

This team had a decent season, finishing 19-15 and losing in an NCAA play- in game to a VCU team that made the final four. The Trojans trailed the No. 3 Jayhawks most of the game and were behind by 11 at the half. USC played a much better second half and grabbed a late lead. The Trojans lost a defensive rebound, which allowed KU to score and take a very late lead, and USC missed key free throws in crunch time. Yet, the Trojans still had a chance to win at the end and make a big statement on the national stage.

Behind by one, the Trojans inbounded the ball in the front court with six seconds left.  The pass came into Jio Fontan, who appeared to have a decent look at the basket, but he stepped on the sideline and the game was over. KU made a final free throw for the 70-68 win. Dante Smith led the Trojans with 20 points, double his season average. After the game he had trouble keeping his composure, repeating that it was a game they could have won.

The Trojans made 45% of their shots compared to the Jayhawks’ 39%, and made 46% of their threes while KU shot 39%. The Jayhawks had nine more rebounds. Nikola Vucevic had a big game, scoring 17 with 10 boards. Other key contributors during this season were Maurice Jones, who averaged 10 points, Alex Stepheson averaged 10 points and nine rebounds and Fontan contributed 10.5 points.

Number 9

The 1976 Trojans Are Winless In Conference Play

USC finished 12-15 that year, and though the record books say they beat Oregon State, the “win” was a result of a later forfeiture; the Trojans actually lost that game by 17 to finish 0-14 In the Pac-8. They had a few close games, losing by one in one game and by two in two others. The struggles continued into the next season. USC lost its first six conference games before beating Washington in February and Stanford late in the season. Over two seasons, USC was 2-26 in Pac-8 play. The 1977 team finished 6-20.

The ‘76 team’s offensive stats were pretty good, but they didn’t result in wins. The Trojans made 48% from the field and 76% from the line. Six-foot-two senior guard Marv Safford had by far his best season and averaged 18 points and 52% from the field. Forwards Earl Evans and Bob Trowbridge both averaged 11.

Six-foot-one guard Mark Wulfemeyer averaged five points but he had an unusual back story. He scored over 2,600 points in high school and averaged over 36 points as a senior in 1974 at Troy High School. He was a very high profile recruit. He played in packed high school gyms and Troy played some games at Fullerton College to accommodate large crowds who came to see him play. As a freshman he scored 26 points in his first game. Wulfemeyer was also an outstanding high school pitcher and signed with the Angels out of high school. His minor league career was cut short by arm trouble, and he also played basketball for the Trojans. Over two seasons at USC, he played in 29 games but he was never the same shooting machine that he was in high school. After USC, he transferred to a small school in Kansas, never to reach his high school potential.

Number 8

Trojans Blow Chance For Outright Pac-10 Title in 1985

The big scoring Trojan forward duo of Wayne Carlander and Derrick Dowell had great seasons. In high school, the rest of Carlander’s team had their last name on the back of their warm up jackets, but his said “The Franchise.” The Trojans led Washington by one game going into the season’s finale at home against Oregon State. USC had not won an outright conference title in 24 years (and that regular season streak is still ongoing today). This was the same season that USC took six overtimes to beat UCLA twice.

In a defensive struggle, the Trojans lost in overtime 60-58 to a Beavers team led by A.C. Green and finished with a 13-5 conference record. Carlander was the Pac-10 Player of the Year. The Trojans went on to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Illinois Sate.

Number 7

Stanford Half Court Buzzer Beater Costs Trojans in 2018

The Trojans had a good season in 2017- 2018.  They finished 24-12 overall and 12-6 in Pac-12 play, good for second place. They also finished second in the Conference Tournament, losing to Arizona in the final game. Every basketball analyst had the Trojans in the NCAA Tournament field, but when the brackets came out, USC was overlooked, while an ASU team which fared much worse in the Pac-12 regular season and Tournament was selected.

One more win might have been the difference, which brings us to the game in Palo Alto. The Trojans were up by 16 at halftime and by 12 at the nine-minute mark, but the Cardinal began to slowly cut into the lead. The game was tied before Jordan MacLaughlin went coast to coast and scored to put the Trojans up by 2 with 1.7 seconds left. Stanford inbounded the ball to freshman guard Daejon Davis short of mid court and he took one dribble and converted from just beyond half court for a Stanford 77-76 win.

The Trojans were snubbed by the NCAA and instead received a No. 1 seed in the NIT, but the team’s spirit was broken.  Chimezie Metu sat out the NIT games to avoid injury before leaving for the NBA. Sophomore guard D’Anthony Melton was barred from playing at all that year by Lynn Swann because of the FBI scandal, even though the Trojan athletic compliance department cleared him of any wrong doing in mid December and he vehemently denied receiving any money. I watched the Trojans in a preseason scrimmage that year and Melton was the best player on the floor. His good friend Metu wore “Free D Melt” shirts before some games.

In NIT play at Galen, Troy beat UNC Asheville in two overtimes and lost in the second round to Western Kentucky by 4. The 2017-2018 season will always be remembered for what could have been.