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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | J.A. ADANDE

Hutchinson Supplies Sweet Relief for Trojans

March 18, 2001|J.A. ADANDE

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The only thing more surprising than USC reaching the Sweet 16 is the guy who guided the Trojans through the final steps to Philadelphia.

He's a player so unheralded that after USC took out third-seeded Boston College, 74-71, in a second-round NCAA tournament game Saturday at Nassau Coliseum, the Eagles' star player still could not identify the perpetrator.

"I don't even know his name," Boston College guard Troy Bell said.

Hutchinson, he was told.

"Hutchinson?"

Robert Hutchinson.

On a team that relies heavily on its starters, Hutchinson backs up the most-used player of all. No one stayed on the court longer for the Trojans this season than junior point guard Brandon Granville. He played 1,036 of a possible 1,210 minutes. And it has become an indisputable fact that point guards are the most valuable commodities in the NCAA tournament.

But Granville had to sit out the final 7:06 of this game after fouling out.

Enter Hutchinson, a sophomore, a player who had as many turnovers as field goals this season--11.

"I thought the game was over," Bell said.

Hutchinson had a few doubts himself.

"I was really nervous," he said.

Boston College's press and trapping defense had made life miserable for the Trojans even with Granville on the court. He had eight of USC's 27 turnovers, and he was considered the best solution.

Then came this new guy, wearing No. 4.

On three of USC's first four possessions after he checked into the game, the Trojans could not get the ball out of the backcourt. They were bailed out in one instance after a reach-in foul sent Sam Clancy to the free-throw line. And the one time they did move past midcourt on their own, they didn't even reach the hash mark before Hutchinson had the ball stolen by Ryan Sidney, who took it in for a layup.

The Eagles kept sending Hutchinson to the free-throw line and Hutchinson kept knocking them down. He made five of six free throws in the final 1:17 to preserve the lead. He also rebounded a missed Eagle shot and threw a long pass to Clancy for a dunk, giving him a hand in seven of USC's last nine points.

It might not rank up there with Cameron Dollar's fill-in for Tyus Edney in the 1995 championship game for UCLA. Hutchinson's final line, which included two turnovers, one assist and no field goals, doesn't look too impressive.

What he did do was turn the doubts into praise, flipping the switch on the transformation of what had been an unspectacular USC season into a milestone one.

"When [Granville] fouled out, I was a little worried because he runs our team and he was breaking their press single-handedly," Clancy said. "But we see Hutch in practice. Even though he doesn't get that much playing time, I knew what he was capable of doing. And coming in and making those free throws, he basically won the game for us."

So the Trojans finally broke through and finally won a game against a team ranked ahead of them.

It's a huge step forward for the program, which had not won two games in an NCAA tournament since 1954. Back then, the field was so small that two victories earned them a trip to the national semifinals. All they get this time is the regional semifinals, but look at their company: Duke, Kentucky and UCLA.

"We're sitting at the table to eat with the big boys," Bibby said.

It has to taste good for Bibby. There were some shaky moments this season, including his decisions in this game to abandon a zone defense and to keep Granville in for so long when he had four fouls. "It kind of backfired on me, I guess," Bibby said. But ultimately, he has to be praised for the way he has elevated the status of USC basketball and in particular how he primed this team to play its best in March, when it matters most.

It also is noteworthy to hear how much credit Hutchinson gave Bibby.

"When Brandon fouled out, all I was thinking about was, 'I've got to step up, I've got to take the team to the Sweet 16,' " Hutchinson said. "As far as the free throws, I was thinking what Coach said: take your practice shot and just relax. That's what I did.

"[Bibby] just basically told me that this is the opportunity I've been waiting for. Relax and treat it like a regular game.

"You never know when you're going to get your chance to get in. You have to prove yourself when you get in, so Coach can play you more often."

Did Hutchinson buy himself more playing time? Bibby wouldn't commit that much.

"Brandon Granville is the guard that we go with," Bibby said. "Robert Hutchinson, hopefully he gets another time. I tell the guys all along, wait for your opportunity, your opportunity will come. You have to be ready for that."

Hutchinson was still coming through 30 minutes after the final buzzer.

Jeff Trepagnier looked around the locker room for a towel before he stepped into the shower. He saw Hutchinson with an extra.

"Can I get a towel, Hutch?" Trepagnier asked.

Hutchinson tossed it to him. His second assist of the evening.

"Point guards never rest," Hutchinson said.

Not the good ones, not during the NCAA tournament.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address at ja.adande@latimes.com.

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