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USC wins Pac-10 tournament, avoids livin' at-large

Trojans rally from a 15-point halftime deficit to stun Arizona State, 66-63, in Pacific 10 final, clinching the conference's automatic NCAA tournament bid.

March 15, 2009|Chris Foster

Now no one will ever know whether USC did enough in the last week to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee.

The Trojans accepted a tournament berth on their own terms Saturday, with a loud and long display of emotion. DeMar DeRozan bounced around the court, refusing to give up the game ball. Taj Gibson emitted a primal scream to no one in particular. Daniel Hackett leaped onto the scorer's table at Staples Center and shouted to fans.

Call it a therapeutic release.

It all came after the Trojans rallied from 15-point halftime deficit to beat No. 23 Arizona State, 66-63, win the Pacific 10 Conference tournament and deny TV talkers nearly 24 hours of are-they-in-or-are-they-out blathering before the NCAA pairings are announced today.

"Tomorrow, we don't have to wait around, hoping, praying to see if they give us a spot," guard Dwight Lewis said. "We earned it."

They did.

The Trojans looked dead enough to need a toe tag at halftime, after Arizona State's James Harden spent the first half displaying his NBA-lottery-pick skills. The potential ramifications were clear -- lose this game, and wait to see if the the selection committee's fickle finger pointed USC's way.

Selection Sunday will be a lot less stressful today, as the Trojans are assured of a third consecutive tournament trip, a first in the program's history.

"It's going to make it easier to sleep tonight, though I don't think I'm going to be able to get to sleep," said DeRozan, had a game-high 25 points and was named the tournament's most outstanding player.

Asked afterward whether he thought the game had to be won to get a tournament spot, Coach Tim Floyd said, "I did. When they take every Big East team, there are probably not that many spots left."

The Trojans took one with a furious second-half rally, capped by a 9-1 run in the last two minutes.

Hackett started it with a jumper, then put the Trojans ahead, 64-63, with two free throws with 42 seconds left.

The game then turned on a mano-a-mano confrontation between Harden, the conference player of the year, and Taj Gibson, the defensive player of the year. On back-to-back possessions, Harden worked off a screen. Gibson blocked his first shot and denied him a good look the second time.

Said Gibson: "I thought, 'Oh no, here comes the rocker step again. Stay down, Coach has faith in you, don't let him down.' "

Faith was what the Trojans' season had become about. Their NCAA tournament plans seemed destined to include a couch and TV remote, maybe some nachos, after they lost six of seven games in February.

"I think we understood it was going to take a big miracle if we didn't win three straight games" in the conference tournament, said Hackett, who had 19 points. "That made us focus on our preparation all week."

USC defeated California and UCLA, needing to hold off both after squandering big leads. That seemed to leave them drained in the first half Saturday.

Harden had six points and five assists, dictating a tempo that pushed the Sun Devils (24-9) on a 17-4 run and earned them a 39-24 halftime lead.

"I told them, 'Thank God we know how teams can blow leads,' " Floyd said. "We gave away two to Cal and UCLA. I said, 'I'm not sure if you guys have the courage of those two teams, but we're going to find out.' "

The Trojans came out in a full-court press to start the second half.

"I just told them to go muck it up," Floyd said.

And Plan B was?

"Punt," Floyd said.

Instead, the Trojans kick-started their offense, getting three baskets off turnovers. Hackett hounded Harden, holding him to three second-half baskets.

DeRozan became the point man on offense. He made 10 of 16 shots, no doubt increasing his draft stock should he choose to jump to the NBA after the season. He scored 11 of the Trojans' first 19 points in the second half.

Said Hackett: "He played like a man, not a freshman."

Trojans fans chanted "One more year" at DeRozan amid the postgame chaos.

"I love that," DeRozan said. "It showed they like my game. I came here to make something happen. And, today, we did."

--

chris.foster@latimes.com

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