Reporting from Lawrence, Kan. — Two newcomers commanded one of basketball's grandest stages Saturday, turning their debut performances into a riveting duel that lasted until the final seconds.
But at the finish, with a monumental, streak-snapping upset on the line, one newcomer stepped up, while the other stepped out.
Kansas super recruit Josh Selby nailed a go-ahead three-point jumper with 20.7 seconds left that proved curtains for USC in a 70-68 loss at Allen Fieldhouse.
"He bailed us out, he saved us," Kansas Coach Bill Self said.
After Selby's shot, though, USC junior guard Jio Fontan, playing in his first game in more than a year, cost the Trojans a potential comeback chance when he was whistled for stepping out of bounds with 6.4 seconds left.
USC had wanted Fontan, who finished with 15 points on four-for-nine shooting, to either shoot or pass inside to junior forward Nikola Vucevic.
"We didn't even get to that play, unfortunately," USC Coach Kevin O'Neill said.
The defeat was the sixth straight on the road for USC (6-5) in a game that had shades of another narrow loss by a Los Angeles team here about 2 1/2 weeks ago.
Just as in UCLA's 77-76 loss to Kansas on Dec. 2, a late call played a huge role.
But instead of controversy, there was only frustration, written all over O'Neill's face as he shook his head when the referee nearest Fontan blew his whistle.
"I'm sure he stepped out," O'Neill said. "He got a little too close to the sideline."
Senior guard Donte Smith walked off the court with his right arm looped around Fontan, who had sat out in accordance with NCAA rules since transferring to USC from Fordham in January.
"Not too bad for a first game," Smith told him.
Considering it came at Kansas, where the capacity crowd of 16,300 roared at ear-splitting levels, and that it was nationally televised, Fontan couldn't disagree.
"I was more comfortable than most people thought," he said. "I felt able to lead my team and be vocal, and that's what is most important."
The loss stung him most, considering the margin.
But Fontan and his teammates said USC simply missed too many chances, perhaps the largest of those on the play before Fontan's turnover, when Kansas forward Markieff Morris grabbed the offensive rebound that led to Selby's shot.
"That's why it hurts," said Smith, who continued his hot shooting, scoring 17 of his 20 points in the second half, making five of seven three-point attempts.
"We had it. It was our game to lose. One rebound and we win the game."
Instead, Kansas' home winning streak, currently the nation's longest, is up to 65.
"Wish we would have broke that streak, but somebody will, someday," O'Neill said.
Next season, perhaps, when Selby is in the NBA, as most predicted well before the nation's top recruit scored a game-high 21 points in his first collegiate game after a nine-game NCAA suspension for allegedly accepting impermissible benefits.
"I can see why everybody was excited for Selby to come back," O'Neill said.
Fontan became Selby's surprise foe, scoring six straight points during an 11-0 run to give USC its first lead, 54-53, with 7 minutes 49 seconds to play.
But even with brilliant down-the-stretch play from Fontan, Smith and 6-foot-10 forwards Vucevic (13 points, eight rebounds) and Alex Stepheson (18 points, eight rebounds), miscues and Selby's clutch shooting cost the Trojans a chance to snap their five-game losing streak to Kansas.
"He won out there," Fontan said of Selby. "It's as simple as that."
Self called USC the best defensive team the Jayhawks have faced, and said Vucevic and Stepheson make for one of the best duos in the nation.
But he added that having Fontan gives the Trojans three perimeter scorers, which will stretch opposing defenses.
"They go from a team that labors offensively to a team that offensively is very confident," Self said.
Whether a nailbiting loss against one of the nation's best boosts USC's confidence or drains it will be found out Tuesday in Knoxville, where No. 7 Tennessee waits.