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USC Advances and Will Face Duke, Which Proves Too Strong for UCLA

USC: Trojans race to 21-point lead but need clutch free throws from Bluthenthal to edge Kentucky, 80-76.


PHILADELPHIA — There is no reason to be surprised anymore by what USC is doing to reshape the NCAA tournament.

In defeating second-seeded Kentucky, 80-76, in an East Regional semifinal, the Trojans again proved that their credentials as a fourth-place team in the Pacific 10 Conference are worthy.

Thursday's game, before 20,270 in the First Union Center--the largest crowd to watch college basketball in Pennsylvania--and a national television audience, was closer than it should have been. The Wildcats (24-10) never led in the game and trailed by 21 in the second half before mounting a desperate rally that twice drew Kentucky to within a point of the Trojans.

But USC, seeded sixth, never got rattled, got five critical free throws (in six attempts) by David Bluthenthal in the final minute, and calmly made its way into the round of eight for the first time since 1954.

"We felt like we were going to win and didn't need to celebrate," said Bluthenthal, who led all scorers with 27 points.

USC improved to 24-9, tying the school record for victories in a season. And the Trojans are within one victory of going to the Final Four for the first time since 1954. They will play Duke Saturday.

"The last three games I have been speechless," USC Coach Henry Bibby said. "I like being speechless in these situations.

"We had a game plan and the kids made shots. Kentucky did have a couple of runs when we were up big, but we were able to stop them when we needed to."

Bibby was asked if the national pining for a Kentucky-Duke tournament rematch (Duke won, 104-103, in overtime in 1992) served as motivation for the Trojans.

"Absolutely, and I thank [the media] for helping us with that," Bibby said. "You guys deserve half this victory as much as we do."

Against top-seeded Duke, the Trojans will again be underdogs.

"We'll take the underdog role," said Jeff Trepagnier, who had 14 points, six rebounds and four steals. "We've been playing with it the whole tournament. It doesn't bother us. I think we thrive on it. Nobody expected us to be here."

As it did against Oklahoma State in the first round, USC throttled Kentucky with a big first half.

The Trojans made 12 of their first 17 shots in building a 31-10 lead. On defense, they confused the Wildcats with a 1-3-1 matchup zone that gave the appearance of a one-on-one defense but sprang two-man traps on any Kentucky player with the ball.

"We thought we were getting open looks, but the shots weren't falling for us early," said Saul Smith--the son of Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith--who had 17 points. "Our movement on offense wasn't where we wanted it to be. It wasn't their offense, really. We were getting good looks, we weren't finishing."

USC repeatedly anticipated and picked off entry passes into the lane, and gave Kentucky little time to get shots. The Trojans forced 16 turnovers in the game; the Wildcats had averaged 11.5 in the tournament.

USC also shut off all shooting room for Tayshaun Prince. The Kentucky forward came in averaging 29 points in the Wildcats' two previous tournament games but was not much of a factor. He had four points in the first half and six in the game. Prince had eight shots in 36 minutes, and missed all four of his three-point attempts. It was the first time he had been held under 10 points in 30 games.

"We tried to pressure Tayshaun a lot," said Brandon Granville, who had seven points and eight assists but four fouls. "We had to force him to go to his right. We know he's a great 'stand-still' shooter, and he's long-armed. So you really have to get up on him, no matter who's guarding him."

By halftime the Wildcats were still down, 43-24, the biggest deficit they had faced after a first half all season. They made only 11 of 30 shots (36.7%), and were an anemic two of 11 from three-point range.

But while the Wildcats were stunned by USC in the first half, they were not knocked out. They roared out in the second half with a 22-5 run, fueled by Smith, burly forward Jason Parker (22 points, 13 rebounds), and Keith Bogans, who led Kentucky with 23.

With the lead sliced to 48-46 and 13:28 left to play, the Trojans looked rattled for the first time. But Sam Clancy said his teammates never lost their cool.

"They were starting to pick our defense apart and we had to do some different things," Clancy said. "But I never felt it was slipping away, that we would lose the game."

It was Bluthenthal who helped the Trojans regain control. He missed his first two three-point shots in the second half, and in other games he might have disappeared offensively. This night, however, Bluthenthal, who was six of nine from three-point range and seven of 13 from the field overall, kept reloading. After Kentucky drew to within 61-60, Bluthenthal made consecutive three-pointers to give USC a cushion again.

"I feel like I'm a good player and I didn't want that to happen to me again," he said. "I felt really bad when I went scoreless against Oklahoma State, even though we won by a lot, and I didn't want that [feeling]."

Neither he nor the Trojans feel that way now.


Good Starts

USC's strong first-half performances has helped lead the Trojans to the Elite Eight:


Opponent First Final Oklahoma State 48-19 69-54 Boston College 35-31 74-71 Kentucky 43-24 80-76


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