FRESNO — The game was barely three minutes old Thursday night when Fresno State center Melvin Ely came trotting off the court during a timeout with a look of assurance on his face.
"They're too short," the 6-foot-11 senior said of No. 20 USC as he pushed his palms to the floor. "They're too short."
Down by 14 points at halftime, USC went big to start the second half, inserting 6-11 freshman center Rory O'Neil, and the Trojans picked up the defense and roared back to tie the score on two occasions, the last time with 3 minutes 11 seconds remaining in the game.
But USC couldn't convert down the stretch and Ely again had reason to shout to the raucous Selland Arena crowd of 10,010.
"New York City, baby. New York City," he said in the closing seconds of Fresno State's 65-58 victory in the second round of the preseason National Invitation Tournament.
While the Bulldogs advance to Madison Square Garden for two games next week, USC is off until Nov. 26.
At least the Trojans get to stay home for Thanksgiving.
"We were back in the game," USC Coach Henry Bibby said. "Coming up empty four times down the floor, that's what kills you. Having no jump shots in the second half and no free throws in the first half, that's what kills you."
In falling behind by as many as 15 points in the game's opening 20 minutes, USC made just one of seven free throws.
For the game, the Trojans shot only 11.1% (two for 18) from three-point territory.
O'Neil, a freshman from Ridgecrest Burroughs High, started the second half in place of 6-8 freshman forward Nick Curtis and assumed the daunting task of guarding fifth-year senior Ely. The move also allowed Trojan senior Sam Clancy, who had been fronting Ely, to move over to his natural power forward position.
The moves helped USC close the gap.
"They dominated the boards in the second half," Fresno State Coach Jerry Tarkanian said.
USC outrebounded the Bulldogs, 30-18, in the second half. The Trojans also limited Fresno State to five field goals after halftime on 17.9% shooting.
"We played basketball for 20 minutes," Bibby said. "We didn't play a full game.
"We had a good effort. I'm disappointed that we lost but I saw a lot of good things. I saw Rory grow up tonight."
O'Neil, who was helped down low on occasion, limited Ely to three points in the second half. Ely made one of eight second-half shots.
O'Neil had 11 points on five-of-eight shooting with six rebounds in 23 minutes. He played the entire second half.
Despite his less-than-imposing pedigree, O'Neil said he wasn't nervous to be trading elbows and battling for position with the likes of Ely.
"I was actually really excited about it," he said. "He's one of the best players in the country. But it's just basketball. You just play hard and I had a lot of fun.
"This was the best player I've ever played against."
After a slow first half, Clancy finished with a team-high 13 points and 12 rebounds with two steals and a block.
"Teams are too good nowadays to get 14 [points] behind and expect to come back," Clancy said. "We had plenty of opportunities to tie it up or go ahead. We just didn't get it done."
USC sophomore forward Jerry Dupree had 12 points, four assists and a block.
Senior small forward David Bluthenthal came off the bench again and finished with eight points and 11 rebounds. But he was 0 for 6 from beyond the three-point stripe.
"In the second half, the defense was there," Bluthenthal said. "But the shots weren't."
Fresno State was led by junior small forward Chris Jefferies' 18 points and 12 rebounds. Freshman point guard Matt Mitchell, who wasn't given a scholarship until the third day of school, came off the Bulldog bench and had 17 points.
Mitchell scored nine of Fresno State's last 14 points on a three-pointer and six pressure-filled free throws.