USC overcomes its usual free-throw struggles to upend UCLA again

USC overcomes its usual free-throw struggles to upend UCLA again

Before Tahj Eaddy came free and his fading, corner heave miraculously fell, the final, slim hopes of USC’s first conference title in 35 years nearly faded away at the free-throw line.

One minute and 26 seconds remained as Chevez Goodwin stood at the stripe with a chance to cut UCLA’s lead to one point. Here was a perfect dress rehearsal for the drama to come in March, an ideal audition for an unexpected run potentially still to come.

But Goodwin missed. Another trip, with just 19 seconds remaining, led him back to the line again. Goodwin made one before missing the second, leaving UCLA with the ball and USC still down two.

Had it ended there, it probably would’ve been a fitting conclusion for USC. All season long, the Trojans have struggled mightily from the stripe. Among likely NCAA tournament teams, no one has been worse than USC, which has hit just under 65% of its free throws, good for 322nd nationally.

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Still, in spite of its free-throw woes — and its equally confounding issues from long range — a stunning game-winner from Eaddy allowed USC to upend UCLA 64-63 at Pauley Pavilion, completing a second consecutive season sweep of the crosstown rivalry and keeping the Trojans’ hopes for an unlikely Pac-12 title alive.

It was a fortunate escape, one that might wind up more memorable still if Oregon State beats Oregon on Sunday night. The Beavers have won four out of five in the in-state series, and if they can defeat the Ducks again, USC will claim its first outright conference title in 60 years.

But that history won’t mean much if USC is upended in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And on Saturday, the Trojans were reminded of the shortcomings that might leave them vulnerable to an early exit, even if those issues haven’t cost them quite yet.

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“We need our big guys to shoot free throws, especially coming up next week and in the NCAA tournament,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “We’re expecting a lot of close games coming up.”

On Saturday, those issues came back to bite the Bruins instead. With 44 seconds left, Jaime Jaquez Jr. was fouled by Goodwin on an offensive rebound. With a chance to push the lead to two possessions, Jaquez missed the front end.

Only 11 seconds remained when Jules Bernard was fouled on the ensuing possession. He missed the front end too, leaving USC down just two, and the Bruins on the brink of blowing their third straight game in the final seconds.

The Trojans had hit a paltry three of 15 shots from three-point range when Ethan Anderson stood at the baseline with three seconds remaining. The inbounds pass was meant to find Evan Mobley for a quick dunk or an alley-oop, but UCLA’s defense blanketed the freshman 7-footer. So as USC scrambled, Eaddy sprinted for the corner.

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Highlights from USC’s 64-63 victory over UCLA on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion.

After a scorching-hot stretch through February, the Trojans’ transfer point guard had cooled by the start of March. Eaddy was just four for 13 from the field against UCLA and one for six from three-point territory when he caught Anderson’s pass in the corner and fired away. He sunk the shot with 1.4 seconds left and was mobbed by his teammates shortly after.

“You always want someone on the court that can stabilize things, bring energy, bring confidence without even scoring the ball,” Eaddy said. “I feel like I do that for this team.”

He has also been perhaps the Trojans’ only consistent three-point shooter this season, a trait that should make him especially valuable this time of year. Eaddy is shooting just under 40% from long range this season, and he also has more than double the three-pointers (53) of the Trojans’ next-most prolific long-range shooter this season, Drew Peterson (26).

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No other Trojan has been more reliable at the line either (78%). But if Eaddy goes cold, it’s unclear where USC would turn for points on the perimeter. USC won Saturday even with 10 misses in 20 free-throw attempts.

“This team could win some games in the NCAA tournament,” Enfield said, “but at the same time, we’ve had games this year where we just didn’t make shots and we’ve struggled. Nothing is taken for granted. If we can make shots, we’re usually very good.”

USC made the one shot that mattered most Saturday. How it might hold up when the stakes are even higher remains a mystery of March.

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