RALEIGH, N.C. — Julian Jacobs leaned forward in a folding chair, his face surrounded by a handful of voice recorders. After two of three prodding questions from visitors in attendance, the USC guard sighed.
“Gosh,” Jacobs said, burying his face in his palms.
On the other side of USC’s quiet locker room, freshman forward Bennie Boatwright sprawled his 6'10" frame at the foot of his locker. Boatwright reached into a bag, pulled out an iPhone and glanced at the screen. The message, whatever it was, made the first-year player slowly shake his head.
Next to Boatwright, guard Katin Reinhardt sat planted on the edge of his seat. Speaking to a visitor, the redshirt junior mumbled, but his voice could be heard all across the hushed locker room. Reinhardt, still and reserved, described exactly why silence had suddenly taken ahold of his Trojan teammates.
“We’re going home,” Reinhardt said, “when we should be playing.”
Therein lies the beauty, and heartbreak, of March: A single, gut-wrenching defeat ends the euphoric experience of playing in the NCAA tournament. One loss has enough power to reduce a group of hooting-and-hollering hoopsters into a despondent pack of funeral attendees. On Thursday night, No. 8 USC mourned the death of its 2016 NCAA tournament run after a devastating 70–69 loss to No. 9 Providence. As losses go, this one shouldn’t have been; right now the Trojans should be basking in the glory of a trip to the second round, where they’d face No. 1 North Carolina on Saturday at PNC Arena. But now USC must begin its 2,544-mile trip home to Los Angeles earlier than expected, giving its players plenty of time to dwell on the same lingering question: How did that just happen?
That was a first-round loss to the Friars, a game USC had no business losing. It held a five-point lead, 66–61, with 3:20 to play and a one-point lead, 69–68, with 58 seconds left. But the Trojans squandered their advantage with atrocious late-game management, missing the front end of two one-and-one opportunities in the game’s final minute.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve stressed free throws,” Jacobs said.
Yet even amid shooting woes, USC still had one final chance to stiff-arm Providence. The Trojans held their 69-68 lead with four seconds left with the Friars preparing to inbound the ball under their own basket for one last shot. Somehow, Providence freshman Drew Edwards found an uncontested Rodney Bullock under the basket and he banked in the game-winning layup. As Friars fans erupted at PNC Arena, the bucket sent USC into a downward spiral and straight out of the Big Dance.
Providence managed to find Bullock by using Kris Dunn, the Friars’ All-America senior guard, as a decoy.
“I guess both defenders went with Kris,” Bullock said. “And when I slipped off it, I was wide open under the basket.”
But Dunn, who sat most of the first half with foul trouble, played a big role in the Friars’ ultimate comeback. After scoring just three points before halftime, the senior drilled a three-pointer that tied the game 68–68 with 1:27 to play. Dunn finished with 16 points and a career extended for at least one more game.
Meanwhile, USC lost for just the second time this season when leading with five minutes to play, finishing with a 20–2 record in such contests. Twenty times the Trojans had managed to close games, but against Providence, with their season on the line, they stumbled.
“It’s one of those things where they made a great play, and we made a mistake,” USC coach Andy Enfield said.
But one mistake didn’t cost USC an NCAA tournament victory. A truly monumental collapse did, the kind of collapse that doesn’t define teams truly deserving of a spot in the Big Dance. Certainly, the Trojans weren’t the only college basketball program to suffer a heartbreaking loss on Thursday. No. 12 Yale shockingly upset No. 5 Baylor, while No. 5 Purdue fell to No. 12 Arkansas-Little Rock in double overtime. But USC exits the NCAA tournament on the heels of a profound disappointment that would have earned it a date with a No. 1 seed.
“Nobody wants to lose like that,” Reinhardt said. “It’s one of the worst ways to lose.”
The devastating end to USC’s season was just the biggest hit in a long string of recent failures. The program entered the tournament having lost seven of its last 10 games, a quantifiable drop-off after its 18–5 start. The Trojans failed to play their best basketball in the second half of the season, and that failure followed USC all the way to Raleigh. Unfortunately for Trojans fans, it ended their season.
Late Thursday night, the reality of a season’s end wafted throughout USC’s locker room. Just down the hall, a vivacious Providence squad celebrated a tournament run that, for the moment, is still alive. The Trojans were so close to reserving that celebration for themselves. Instead, USC players ended their time in the NCAA tournament reacting to what could have been, a lost potential that might ultimately come to define the program’s 2015–16 season.
“We weren’t playing to lose,” guard Jordan McLaughlin said. “We wanted to just keep making plays.”
Then McLaughlin took a deep breath, and paused.