TEMPE, Ariz. — In the final minutes, the shots that had been dropping bounced away. The whistles started signaling nothing but bad news. The rebounds were just out of reach.
And USC lost another basketball game. This one extended the losing streak to six, left the Trojans with records of 3-13 overall, 1-6 in the Pacific 10 Conference, and was real hard to take.
After leading by as many as 18 points in the first half, USC lost to Arizona State, 78-74. Much to the delight of the 5,813 in attendance at the Arizona State University Activities Center Saturday, the Sun Devils' three-game losing streak came to an end.
"The least that the Lord could have done was let us get out of here with a tie," USC Coach George Raveling said as he tried to explain how his team had let the game get away. "He could have come up with a tidal wave or a snowstorm or a bomb scare or something when it was tied."
There was no one thing to point to. Nowhere to lay the blame.
It didn't help that forward Chris Munk fouled out with 3 minutes 32 seconds to play. But that certainly wasn't a game-breaking loss.
Then there was the three-point shot by Anthony Pendleton that could have put the Trojans back on top with seven seconds to play. He took a good shot. He's made 43 three-pointers this season. He missed.
The rebound went to Mark Carlino, who was quickly fouled. Carlino is a 58% free-throw shooter. He made both ends of the one-and-one.
Arizona State Coach Steve Patterson figured that his team was due for a little good fortune. The victory put the Sun Devil record at 11-6 overall (matching last season's victory total) and 5-3 in the conference. Patterson said: "I think we deserved it. We sure needed it. It's a conference win, a home win, and we played hard to get it. SC sure gave us a scare."
The 18-point lead was the biggest lead the Trojans have had against a Division I team this season.
And they still had a 12-point advantage at halftime.
But the Sun Devils came out strong in the second half, made a zone defense work for them, hit the boards harder and did a good job of beating the Trojan guards in transition.
As Sun Devil guard Arthur Thomas said: "USC is the kind of team that lets you back in it--and they did."
Never was there a discernible letdown, however.
Said Munk: "Basketball is a game of spurts. They just did a better job of putting together those six-point spurts in the second half.
"They came back out strong. I think the team that is down at halftime often gets more motivated to come back strong."
Munk wasn't hanging his head. He felt it had been a good, confident team effort. His own effort wasn't bad, either. He finished with 14 points and 5 rebounds.
The Trojans were led in scoring by junior guard Andy Olivarez, who popped a series of three-pointers early and finished with 18 points.
"Our shot selection was the best it has been all season," Raveling said. "We hit our foul shots (81.8%). We played with intensity. I'm confused as to what to say to the kids because they did what I told them to do, and it just wasn't enough."
Things started going sour for USC midway through the second half, just after Olivarez stepped out of bounds with the ball, and ASU turned the turnover to its advantage on a jumper from the left baseline by Mark Becker that cut the Trojan lead to seven points.
The margin went to four points a few minutes later on John Jerome's three-pointer from the top of the key. And after a foul on Chris Moore put the ball back in the Sun Devils' hands, Tarence Wheeler made the three-pointer that made it a one-point game.
The second half looked nothing like the first half. Although both teams finished with the same shooting percentage on the same number of shots (26 of 54 for 48.1%) they reversed themselves by halftime. USC went from 55.2% to 40%, and ASU went from 43.3% to 54.2%. From three-point range, it was even more dramatic, with USC hitting 3 of 5 in the first half but just 1 of 9 in the second half, and ASU going 0 for 5 in the first half and 3 for 7 in the second half.
USC had a 20-13 rebounding advantage in the first half but finished with two fewer rebounds than the Sun Devils.
"I have to give George a lot of credit," Patterson said. "He had us confused in the first 10 minutes or so. They started out in man and went to a zone, but they disguised it well and it took us awhile to solve it."
Raveling, though, can't solve the question of why his Trojans can come so close, play so well and still not win.
"If (Athletic Director Mike) McGee had come to me before the season started and asked me if I would be willing to quit if this season was worse than last season, I would have been willing to bet it all. I'd be a poor man now. My son would be an orphan.
"I swear to God, I watch other teams on TV and I don't think they have any better talent than we do. So then I think it must be me. . . . I don't know. . . . I still believe with ever fiber in my body that we will have the kind of program I envision for USC. Maybe this is what we have to go through along the way to get it done."