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Frustration Melts Trojans' Season

Early friction hurt, and lack of a true point guard led to a struggle for consistency and a 13-15 overall record for USC.

March 13, 2004|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

Even as he released his last shot of the night, a 25-foot airball from the right wing that was still soaring through Staples Center when the shot clock expired, Desmon Farmer thought he would find his stroke and get it going.

"I was trying," the senior said as he fought back tears in a somber USC locker room late Thursday. "It just wasn't my night."

It wasn't the Trojans' year.

Mustafa Shakur's buzzer-beating 22-footer, less than five seconds after Farmer's miss had saddled him with a two-for-20 shooting game, gave Arizona a 79-76 victory in the Pacific 10 Conference tournament and delivered a fitting end to one of the more frustrating and underachieving seasons in recent USC basketball history.

The Arizona loss was typical of USC's season; the Trojans thinking they had turned a corner, only to run face first into a brick wall.

"This season was a learning lesson for all of us," said USC Coach Henry Bibby, who has one year remaining on his contract. "You're never too old to learn."

But banging your head against the same wall can definitely get old.

USC had essentially five starters back from a team that had made a run to the Pac-10 tournament's title game last spring and, by the time the season was over, the Trojans had an All-Pac-10 player in Farmer, an all-freshman Pac-10 selection in guard Lodrick Stewart and the league's newcomer of the year in Fordham transfer Jeff McMillan.

Yet USC finished 13-15 overall -- the first time in Bibby's eight-year tenure he has finished with losing records in consecutive seasons.

"This one is especially painful," Derrick Craven said. "It hurts. We've had two bad seasons in a row. Nobody in here is used to losing.

"I think we played well the past three or four games. We were playing together, nobody was arguing."

That wasn't the case early in the season, when the friction around the team was thicker than Farmer's customary upside-down headband.

The arrival of the loud and loquacious Stewart twins, Lodrick and Rodrick, from Seattle seemed to change the chemistry of the junior-heavy team, Bibby slapping the freshmen with gag orders on several occasions. An in-house competition between the Stewarts and the Craven twins, Errick and Derrick, seemed to set the tone early. Bibby almost acknowledged the need to start one Craven and one Stewart to keep peace.

But the results weren't coming, not with USC's blowing a seven-point lead in the final minute to Nevada Las Vegas and losing in overtime, or in a shocking blowout by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

The absence of a true point guard -- Derrick Craven and Rodrick Stewart are converted combo guards -- and the transfer of seldom-used freshman Quinton Day, who began the season as the Trojans' lone true point, bit USC, as did the injury to sharpshooter Roy Smiley, who broke his leg in last year's Pac-10 tournament and took a medical redshirt season.

As a result, USC struggled for consistency. The Trojans never won more than two games in succession and twice had three-game losing streaks. They blew at least nine-point leads in Pac-10 losses to Arizona State, Washington, Washington State, Arizona, Stanford and Oregon. USC went 8-10 in league play.

There were positives, however, such as the second consecutive sweep of cross-town rival UCLA. In fact, while the heart of the Trojans' third-year players -- the Cravens, Nick Curtis and Rory O'Neil -- was often questioned by Bibby, they do have a 5-1 record against the Bruins.

"Those four guys really have to go back and evaluate their basketball," Bibby said. "We expect them to be the heart and soul of the team."

If nothing else, the season-ending loss to a powerful, if not deep, Arizona team gave Trojan fans a glimpse of their team's future, even if the state of USC's incoming recruiting class is in doubt due to qualifying issues.

Junior forwards McMillan and Gregg Guenther had double-doubles against Arizona. McMillan had 13 points and 13 rebounds, Guenther 10 and 10.

Errick Craven played arguably his most inspired game of the season. He had 18 points, seven rebounds, a blocked shot and a steal. Lodrick Stewart scored 20 points, tying the highest total of his career. He made four three-pointers.

Farmer, the No. 4 scorer in USC history, began the game averaging 20 points, but went 0 for 12 from beyond the three-point arc and 0 for 3 on free throws. He finished with four points.

"I hate losing games like that," Stewart said, reflecting upon Shakur's last-second shot. "I'd rather we get blown out. We didn't want Des to go out like that."

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