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NCAA TOURNAMENT

End of the Line

USC: Trojans rally from 15-point halftime deficit, but foul shooting is the difference in 90-77 loss to Illinois.

March 15, 1997|GEORGE DOHRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHARLOTTE, N.C.-For the briefest of moments Friday at the Charlotte Coliseum, USC was an authentic NCAA tournament team--leaping, running and experiencing something few thought it would this season.

The Trojans were tied with Illinois with 5 minutes 19 seconds left, thanks to Danny Walker's leaning baseline jump shot, and the horrors of the first 35 minutes had vanished.

Forgotten was the 15-point deficit USC faced after playing a selfish first half, abandoning a game plan designed to use its height advantage inside.

Apparently overcome was the leadership missing from seniors Stais Boseman and David Crouse.

The game was tied, and the thought of advancing to the second round of the Southeast Regional seemed so right.

"We felt like we were going to win it right there," Jaha Wilson said.

But just when everything looked so promising, it went wrong. USC folded, Illinois won, 90-77, and the Trojans, eliminated from their first NCAA tournament since 1992, were left to ask: "What if?"

"When you have the opportunity in front of you, you have to take advantage of it," Crouse said. "It was right there. We had the chance. And we didn't do anything about it."

Boseman fouled out just after USC (17-11) had tied the score, 69-69--the first time USC had not trailed. Then, Illinois guard Kiwane Garris made two free throws, and the Illini made 11 of their last 12 shots in a clinching 21-8 run.

"We were trying to get past that tie score, but we missed some critical free throws and made some turnovers," USC Coach Henry Bibby said. "It broke our back when we weren't able to make our free throws."

Said Rodrick Rhodes, whose 19-point performance was tainted only by the rushed three-point shot he took after Garris' free throws, "[Illinois] didn't deviate from their game plan. They were well coached and played together. Our game plan was to get inside and take advantage of our height. We didn't stick to what Coach Bibby and the coaching staff wanted us to do."

Illinois (22-9), a team that relied on the three-point shot all season, made only five of those, only one in the second half. But USC missed the opportunity, shooting 41% to Illinois' 60%, making only five of 19 three-point shots and missing 12 free throws while the Illini were making 23 of 29.

The Trojans were particularly inept in the first half, when USC's trapping defense failed to find the open shooters in transition and Illinois guard Kevin Turner, most often the man in transition, scored 16.

"[Turner] killed us," Boseman said. "[Illinois] came out sizzling. I don't think anybody on our team expected him to score 16 in the first half."

And no one on either team expected Crouse, USC's 6-foot-11 center, to be as ineffective as he was against the much smaller Illini. He shot only once and scored five points.

"I didn't do anything," Crouse said. "In the first half we weren't able to get the ball inside, and we were just throwing up shots."

But to start the second, trailing 46-31, USC went with its biggest lineup, the shortest player being the 6-4 Boseman, who was about to find himself in serious foul trouble after trying to guard Garris.

Pushing the ball inside to Wilson, who finished with 18 points, USC gradually cut into Illinois' lead, beginning with an 8-2 run to start the half. That spurt grew to 21-8 on Boseman's three-point basket with 13:52 left that put USC within two, 54-52.

Illinois increased its lead to six before another run by USC, ending with Walker's 10-footer, tied the score. But Garris, who scored 27 and made 16 of 17 free throws, was drawing fouls left and right and sank all 10 of his free throws after Walker's shot.

"USC came back hard in the second half," Illini forward Bryant Notree said. "They are very physical and came back with a lot of fire."

But in the end, USC was trying to come back without Boseman, who played only 10 minutes in the second half, and not at all in the last five minutes.

"We needed Stais in there," Wilson said. "He's the key to our team and the key to our success. He does no good sitting there on the bench."

Said Boseman, "It was tough sitting there. My team needed me, but I think a lot of the calls could have gone either way."

Because of the way USC lost, it was not as simple after the game to credit Illinois and move on. The Trojans, some more than others, will blame themselves for this loss.

"I feel like I should take a lot of the responsibility," Crouse said. "I am a fifth-year senior and I didn't play to form. That is something I am going to have to live with for a long time . . . forever. What if I had come to play today?

"That is something we all are going to be relegated to saying, 'What if?' "

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