With USC's good friends from across town running interference, the Trojans clinched at least a tie for the Pacific 10 basketball championship by beating Oregon, 65-62, Thursday night at the Sports Arena.
Only Washington, which beat California, 41-38, has a chance to finish in a tie for the league title if the Huskies beat Stanford today while USC loses to Oregon State.
The Bruins have been the Trojans' benefactors the past week. UCLA virtually eliminated Arizona last Saturday, and the Bruins, again in the spirit of cooperation, beat Oregon State, 59-51, Thursday night at Pauley.
So what was a five-team race at the outset of the week has now narrowed to two teams--USC and Washington.
The Trojans, 13-4 in the Pac-10, one game ahead of the Huskies (12-5), are virtually assured of a bid to the NCAA tournament.
All of the other contenders, Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona, have been eliminated from Pac-10 title contention.
It was only appropriate that John Rudometkin was present Thursday night as USC assured itself of its first Pac-10 title since 1961--even if the Trojans have to share it.
Rudometkin, who led USC to its last championship 24 years ago, took part in opening ceremonies to honor forward Wayne Carlander, who last Sunday broke Rudometkin's school career scoring record.
"It was very nice," Carlander said. "It's good to be noticed for something you've done."
Carlander got 16 points against Oregon, his season average. And as usual, he came through when the Trojans needed him most.
He made six straight free throws in the final 68 seconds to hold off the Ducks, who refused to fold and stayed close to the Trojans.
Derrick Dowell, USC's sophomore forward, contributed 11 points and 11 rebounds and made 6 of USC's 9 steals.
The Trojans, 19-8 overall, seemed to be playing not to lose in the closing minutes, rather than aggressively taking charge of the game.
USC had a comfortable 15-point lead, 47-32, with 11:08 remaining, but Oregon, 8-9 in the Pac-10, surged to trim the Trojans' advantage to five points with 58 seconds left.
Carlander then made two foul shots, but Oregon's Greg Trapp countered with a follow shot with 42 seconds left.
USC guard Glenn Smith made the front end of a one-and-one with 20 seconds remaining, but Oregon freshman Anthony Taylor converted a three-point play seven seconds later.
Carlander then wrapped the game up with two more free throws, and Trapp got the final basket of the game with only four seconds left.
A crowd of 8,595 watched the Trojans take a 32-27 lead at halftime and then seemingly put the Ducks away with a 15-5 run at the start of the second half.
But Oregon kept whittling away at the lead, although USC never relinquished it.
Blair Rasmussen, Oregon's 7-foot center, kept his team in the game. He scored 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting. He got good position near the basket and just looped the ball over the head of 6-10 USC center Clayton Olivier and the other Trojans.
"That was really a tough game," USC Coach Stan Morrison said. "There were a lot of nervous people out there, none more nervous than this coach. We made some clutch free throws down the stretch, and Carlander and Dowell's rebounding were the keys.
"Blair Rasmussen is just too tough. It's like trying to guard Von KleinSmid Center tower on our campus.
"We got half the championship. I hope we get the other half on Saturday. It's us and Washington now. And I'll be pulling for Stanford like crazy. But we're not interested in backing in."
The Trojans wouldn't have had to wait so long this season to claim a championship had they been able to handle the Cardinal. Stanford, the league's last-place team, is responsible for two of USC'S four conferences losses.
The Trojans will know the result of the Washington-Stanford game before they meet the Beavers. The Husky-Cardinal game at Palo Alto starts at 1 p.m. and will be televised by Channel 4. USC's game with OSU starts at 3 p.m. and will be televised by Channel 5.
No Pac-10 team other than UCLA and Oregon State has won the title outright since Rudometkin's Trojans did it in 1961.
USC was picked to finish no higher than seventh in a preseason coaches and media poll, but Morrison's role players, a blue-collar team, persevered.
In the final analysis, they probably got a share of the title, at least, with their outstanding 8-1 record on the road, including a one-week sweep of three Northwest teams last month.
Dowell said he cracked the index finger on his right hand in practice Wednesday. But the injury didn't hamper him Thursday night.
He was constantly hawking the ball and had five of his six steals in the first half. He was 3 for 3 from the field and 5 for 9 from the free-throw line.
USC guard Larry Friend, the Pac-10 assist leader, passed off for six assists and crisply orchestrated his team's spread-court game in the closing minutes.
"Give USC credit," Oregon Coach Don Monson said. "They've got good athletes and they're playing well. They hurt us on the offensive boards, and we fumbled some crucial rebounds."
USC outrebounded Oregon, 32-28, but the Ducks had an edge in shooting, 50% to 48.9%.
Morrison didn't do much substituting. Carlander, Dowell and Friend each played 40 minutes. Wingman Ron Holmes performed for 36 minutes, while Olivier fouled out with 6:19 left in the game.
Carlander was at the free-throw line with 1:08 left in the game when public-address announcer John Ramsey informed the crowd that UCLA had beaten Oregon State, dropping the Beavers to 11-6 in the conference and out of the race.
Never have so many in a USC partisan crowd cheered so long and hard for the Bruins.