YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Trojans make a loud statement in earning an improbable title

USC completes a surprising run to Pacific 10 Conference championship after an inconsistent regular season.

March 15, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

You want madness?

A football school just punted, passed and kicked its way into the NCAA basketball tournament.

A school whose most famous player is a rapper who never plays.

A school whose most famous play was the punch of a crotch.

A school that won one game in February, two games in an opponent's gym, and led for exactly 69 seconds in Saturday's biggest game of the season.

Remember USC? Bright coach, buoyant players, dark clouds.

Now add -- yeee-gads -- an equally wacky Pacific 10 Conference tournament champions tag.

I didn't believe it either, until Daniel Hackett leaped on a Staples Center press table late Saturday afternoon and screamed it to the world.

Or maybe it was when he ran to each section and screamed it into the stands.

Or, you know, I think it happened when he screamed it in my face.

"We made history!" shouted Hackett, the Trojans guard, after directing USC to a 15-point comeback victory over Arizona State in a 66-63 stunning tournament championship victory.

History, indeed, as it is the middle of March and USC actually occupies this town's college basketball headlines.

Three consecutive 20-win seasons and three consecutive NCAA tournament appearance -- both school records -- the streaks culminating in a 24-hour period in which USC beat UCLA and Arizona State.

"In three years we've made something," Hackett said. "People have got to start paying attention, right?"

I am, and I've ignored the Trojans almost as much as anybody.

I say almost, because nobody has ignored them like the school's students and alumni, the team regularly filling only about half of the 10,258-seat Galen Center, and failing to fill even that much of Staples Center on Saturday on what should have been a home court.

This season, like always, they've been more bewildering than beloved.

There was the time that Trojans forward Leonard Washington was seen punching Oklahoma star Blake Griffin between his legs.

There was the time that Trojans guard Dwight Lewis was caught flipping off Washington during a game.

There was the time that Lewis and Hackett engaged in a heated argument that threatened the entire locker room.

All this time, I thought rapper-reserve Percy Miller would be the distraction, but things are so crazy over there, he barely made a thump-thump.

"We're a young team, and to go through a lot of things that takes a lot out of you," Coach Tim Floyd said.

The last I remember thinking about USC, Hackett was curled up on the locker room floor after a loss to Stanford made them 1-6 in February.

At that point, Floyd and the team had a meeting that ended in a simple message.

"We realized that nobody cares about us but us, so we have to stick together" center Taj Gibson said.

They haven't lost since, with five victories in a row, a streak that nearly ended Saturday when they fell behind by 15 points at halftime in a game that was required winning not only for their first Pac-10 tournament title, but for an NCAA tournament berth.

At which point the football school punted, passed and kicked it.

They punted at the start of the second half by using a full-court press even though they never even practiced it.

"It wasn't any coaching, I just told them to muck the game up a little bit," Floyd said.

That was one beautiful muck. After committing only one turnover in the first half, the Sun Devils committed four in the first three minutes of the second half as the Trojans jabbed and slapped and stole their way back into the game.

The passing part happened next, with the calmness of junior leaders Hackett, Lewis and Gibson leading to ball movement that led to a second-half shooting of 67%, freshman DeMar DeRozan peaking with a game-high 25 points.

"We've been through this before," Hackett said. "When you don't have many other people believing in you, you have to trust your teammates."

Then came the kick, with 19 seconds remaining, with USC leading by one point, timeout, Arizona State's ball.

On the sideline, Floyd not only correctly predicted the play, but also how to stop it.

He knew Sun Devils star James Harden would be taking a shot off a screen. He ordered Gibson to switch on the screen and guard Harden for the first time in the game.

Said Gibson: "The coach knew exactly what was going to happen. I just had to jump."

So he did, blocking Harden's shot to secure the game.

Note to Mike Garrett: This was not an illusion. The last three years are not an illusion. Floyd can coach. Don't let him get away.

Said Floyd: "I had nothing to do with this, it was all about the kids, everything we've been through, they never stopped working."

Even after they danced and waved and hugged their way to the ladder under the Staples Center basket Saturday, they were working.

During the middle of an interview while his teammates were clipping down the net, Hackett stopped, turned and shouted.

"Wait!" he said. "Save a piece for me!!!"

He cut his sliver. He put it in his souvenir cap.

"First championship of any kind," he said. "It's like I still don't believe it."

A week early. Still madness.


Follow Plaschke on Twitter at

Los Angeles Times Articles