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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | J.A. ADANDE

USC Making Name Stand on Its Own

March 23, 2001|J.A. ADANDE

PHILADELPHIA — Normally at this time of year I'm just getting that annoying USC fight song out of my head after three months of hearing it after every Trojan touchdown, first down and timeout during football season.

How strange was it to hear it in March, some 3,000 miles from L.A., in the latter stages of the NCAA tournament?

About as strange as it feels to write this sentence: USC is going to the East Regional final.

Here was USC among this gathering of basketball bluebloods Kentucky, Duke and UCLA, sticking out like a hick wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sandals into a stuffy boardroom meeting. And they weren't shown the door.

To anyone who saw both teams in the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, the thought of sixth-seeded USC beating second-seeded Kentucky should not have come as a complete shock. The Trojans simply looked like a better overall team in beating Oklahoma State and Boston College than the Wildcats did in their victories against Holy Cross and Iowa.

Now that it's a fact and the ink on that USC 80, Kentucky 76 score is starting to dry, it's still hard to believe. Hard for everyone outside their locker room, that is.

It's kind of fun to watch a group from a big-time school in a big-time city fight for recognition as if they're another Hampton or Gonzaga. But that's the perception of the USC basketball program. When compared to UCLA it's a little like the Clippers vs. the Lakers, but at least the Clippers left the Sports Arena for a new building.

"People kept saying [that] if we lost, people would be proud of us anyway for making it this far," forward David Bluthenthal said. "That's not what we had in mind. We were able to go out there and win."

One of those already proud people was the USC athletic director.

"I'll be honest with you, going to the tournament was very big for me," Mike Garrett said. "I felt like anything after winning our first game against Oklahoma State would be icing on the cake. I never thought we would win two games after that. This is just a wonderful experience."

As if that weren't enough dessert, the Trojan faithful then got to watch UCLA lose to Duke. USC in the Elite Eight, UCLA headed home. That's like the United States beating Brazil in soccer or Canada in hockey.

As USC Coach Henry Bibby said courtside after the victory, "It shows that basketball is alive [at USC] and there's not one basketball school in Los Angeles."

Nothing fluky about this. The Trojans had the better game plan coming in and they had the talent to execute it. The biggest advantage in Kentucky's favor was junior forward Tayshaun Prince, and the Trojans made him a non-factor.

Bluthenthal dropped in six three-pointers, made the clutch free throws down the stretch and finished with 27 points. The Trojans committed a manageable 13 turnovers, almost half the number they had against Boston College. Thanks to backup Robert Hutchinson, they survived another stretch with point guard Brandon Granville on the bench with foul trouble.

And they survived a strong second-half comeback by Kentucky to produce what Garrett called "Probably the greatest win we've ever had in basketball."

Brian Scalabrine believed. He was so sure that he told his mother to skip the first weekend in Long Island and buy tickets to Philadelphia for the regionals. As long as his parents made the trip, "They didn't come out here to see me play one game," Scalabrine said. "They want to see two games."

Scalabrine did his part by scoring 13 points and helping USC hold Prince to six points.

"We feel like we belong here," he said. "No matter what people say about us, we're going to keep going out there and keep playing hard and we're going to keep trying to win. I think USC is a great institution and I think we're proving to the basketball world that we can compete with anybody."

They came a long way on Thursday alone, although afterward a reporter did address Scalabrine as "Ryan."

Maybe now people might think there's more to USC than the walk-on walkout and Jeff Trepagnier's marriage, the only Trojan story lines East Coast reporters knew of before the game.

Maybe now the administration can greenlight the new on-campus arena and more boosters and perhaps a corporate sponsor will kick in some funds.

"Winning like this just lets everybody know that we really need our arena for the kind of kids we have," Garrett said.

It's hard to imagine the magic continuing Saturday against a superior Duke team, but Bibby will probably just use that as extra motivation too.

You're talking about a guy who told his players that the Trojans' name featured the smallest letters of all the schools listed on the scorer's table. (Of course, they weren't trying to hear the rational explanation that "Southern California" is a little more difficult to fit than UCLA or Duke.)

"Everyone else was in big, bold letters, and ours was just over there like it didn't belong," Sam Clancy said. "That's just something Coach Bibby noticed. No one else would have noticed."

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