It was just the kind of game coach Utah Rick Majerus wanted his young team to experience - a pressure-filled game on the road that went down to the final shot in the final second.
Fortunately for the Utes, the shot at the buzzer by USC's Brandon Martin missed, giving Utah a 72-70 win over the Trojans Saturday afternoon at the L.A. Sports Arena.The win upped the Utes' season record to 3-2 and dropped the Trojans to 1-3.
"It was a nice win for us on the road," said Majerus. "We held in there through some real adversity. Our freshmen came up big."
In fact, two freshmen who were playing high school ball in Utah last year - Drew Hansen and Alex Jensen - sank foul shots in the final minute of the game that gave the Utes their ultimate margin of victory.
Utah, which had earlier blown an 11-point halftime lead, let an 8-point lead with under four minutes left slip away and almost watched a key road victory escape.
Two late 3-pointers by USC - along with a couple of missed free throws by the Utes - allowed the Trojans to get a shot at the victory inside the final four seconds.
The Utes took their two-point lead with 6.8 seconds when Jensen made the second of two free throws.
After getting the ball to midcourt, the Trojans called timeout. The ball went to freshman Cameron Murray, who threw over to a wide-open Brandon Martin. He took a 19-footer that was on line as time expired, but the ball bounced on the front of the rim and over. Although it appeared to many to be a 3-pointer, it turned out that Martin's foot was on the 3-point line, which would have meant overtime had it fallen.
"We went for the win, not the tie," said USC coach Charlie Parker. "Brandon's comfort zone is a foot inside the 3-point line. He was instructed to take a three. If his foot was on the line, he just misjudged it."
The Utes were led by a pair of players playing in their old home area, before a horde of their fans.
Junior guard Brandon Jessie, who is from Huntington Beach, led the Ute scoring with 21 points, while sophomore Keith Van Horn, who hails from Diamond Bar, added 16 points and 11 rebounds after a slow start.
Both players had cheering sections behind the Ute bench, which helped neutralized the small crowd of 2,522.
"It was fun, I enjoyed it," said Jessie, who had a cheering section of about 50 family and friends. "I'm glad we got the win."
Van Horn said he didn't feel any extra pressure playing before family and friends. Quite the contrary.
"It's more fun and exciting," he said. "I had a lot of people here."
In the first half, Van Horn was almost invisible, going scoreless and taking just one shot. But he recovered with 16 second-half points.
"I just didn't let it get to me and came out stronger in the second half," he said.
In both halves, the Utes had a difficult time getting started. They fell behind 7-2 before coming back on a trio of 3-pointers by Jimmy Carroll. Utah took the lead at 20-19 and by halftime extended it to 11 at 36-25.
The second half saw the Utes begin with three straight turnovers before getting off a shot while USC scored eight straight points. The pressure by the smaller and quicker USC team hurt the Utes, who turned the ball over 23 times compared to just nine for their opponents.
At the 9:59 mark, the Trojans went back in front at 53-51. But Van Horn scored inside and after Jessie knocked down an NBA-length 3-pointer to make it 57-55, the Utes never trailed.
Another trey by Jessie and a two-and-one play by Van Horn gave the Utes a 66-58 lead with 3:59 left, but again the Trojans came back.
When Terry Preston, the Utes' on-court leader and best ball-handler, fouled out with 2:00 left, it spelled trouble for the Utes. Preston had fouled out at a similar juncture against Michigan, and his absence may have cost the Utes a possible win then.
A 3-pointer by Murray cut the lead to 70-67 with 1:03 left, and then Carroll stepped on the out-of-bounds line, giving USC a chance to tie. But Murray missed another 3-point try and Hansen was fouled.
Hansen made one of two with 55 seconds left, but Burt Harris answered with a 3-pointer with 40 seconds left to make it a one-point game.
Rather than foul, the Trojans let the Utes work the clock down because there was a five-second differential between the shot and game clocks.
With just 2 seconds left on the shot clock and 6.8 on the game clock, Jensen was fouled going up for a shot. After missing the first, he swished the second.
Jaha Wilson, a player Majerus recruited, led USC with 18 points, while Murray added 16 and Lorenzo Orr 15.
GAME NOTES: Ma Jian, a starter all of last year, got a DNP for the first time in his career as Majerus stuck with an eight-man rotation . . . Utah won the rebound battle 42 to 31 . . . The Utes shot 50 percent from the field compared to USC's 38 percent . . . Carroll, who has been having a tough year shooting, sank four 3-pointers and finished with 14 points . . . Next up for Utah is Weber State Saturday night in the Huntsman Center . . . After the Utah-USC game, everyone was hustled out of the arena so it could be readied for the big Los Angeles Clippers-Minnesota Timberwolves matchup later in the evening.