USC forward Nikola Vucevic shoots and scores over Arizona State forward… (Rob Schumacher / Associated…)
Reporting from Tempe, Ariz. — The score was close, the time running out, the crowd on its feet, the building rumbling and rocking.
But for USC, its exhilarating, back-and-forth second half Thursday against Arizona State at Wells Fargo Arena, where 7,638 raucous fans bore down, was nothing new.
"It kind of looked familiar," junior guard Jio Fontan said.
It should have. Entering Thursday, USC had played in nine games decided by six or fewer points this season.
And seven had been losses, four on the game's final possession.
So when Arizona State senior guard Ty Abbott missed a three-point shot with 0.5 of a second left, giving USC a 63-61 win, the Trojans had what they've often been denied: a close win.
"It was big for us to do that," USC Coach Kevin O'Neill said.
Especially on the road, where USC (12-9, 4-4 in Pacific 10 Conference play) won for only the fifth time in its last 22 league games.
The Trojans started slowly and fell behind by double digits midway through the first half against Arizona State (9-11, 1-7).
But USC found its way through Arizona State's zone defense with junior forward Nikola Vucevic, who shone after scoring only six points in USC's two-point loss against California, in which he spent much time on the bench, dazed and bleeding after taking an elbow to his jaw.
"After the last game, I was really mad," Vucevic said.
He scored USC's first eight points, and finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds, his Pac-10-leading 12th double-double this season.
A Vucevic hook shot also capped USC's 14-2 run that gave the Trojans a 53-45 lead with 6:53 left.
But Arizona State's Rihards Kuksiks, who had a season-high 22 points, scored 11 straight for the Sun Devils to tie it at 58-58 with 1:04 left.
USC scored four straight, then a Trent Lockett three-point shot made it a one-point game with 20 seconds left.
After USC freshman forward Garrett Jackson made a free throw, Abbott, who scored 19, missed the first of two desperate three-point shots. That was that.
For once, USC struggled little against a zone defense, shooting 24 for 50 (48%).
It was hindered by foul trouble, but that was outweighed because Arizona State made only 12 of 25 free throws.
That proved to be the difference in a game USC needed badly against a Pac-10 bottom-tier squad.
"Arizona State needed to win too," O'Neill pointed out. "When you have two teams playing desperate, you get that kind of intensity."
But had USC lost, especially after recently falling on the road to the subpar Oregon schools, its season would have been in serious trouble.
"We needed a win that would boost us up," Vucevic said, "and we feel like we did it tonight."
Not to be lost in the win is USC's 5-foot-7, 155-pound mighty mouse freshman point guard, Maurice Jones.
Jones entered Thursday as the Pac-10's leader in minutes (36.7), which seemed to have worn him down, but O'Neill wanted more aggression.
"He's been telling me that all this week, this morning, even right before the game," Jones said.
Jones followed orders, finishing with 14 points, six assists, six steals and one turnover in 39 minutes.
"Maurice played his best game of the year, all around," O'Neill said, "offensively and defensively."
It couldn't have come at a better time.