At this point, USC has to have victories, plain and simple.
Washington State also wants them, to be sure, but the Cougars are looking almost as much for encouraging performances from their underclassmen - in short, something redeeming to take into next season.
Both teams were rewarded Thursday night.
USC escaped Friel Court with a come-from-behind, 92-85 victory that kept its NCAA Tournament hopes alive, while WSU could savor a career performance from a suddenly versatile sophomore forward named Steve Slotemaker.
“There were a lot of good things that came from that basketball game,” WSU coach Kevin Eastman said. “Contrary to maybe what some people think, you can be disappointed and still like some things.”
Take Slotemaker, for instance.
The 6-foot-8, 210-pounder was first the hero, scoring 15 often spectacular points, and later the goat, turning the ball over on an inbounds pass with 18.4 seconds left and the Cougars down 88-85.
Early on, he was Steve “Julius” Slotemaker, shocking all 5,756 in attendance by blowing past USC center David Crouse for the most emphatic of two-handed jams.
Later, he was Steve “Magic” Slotemaker, baffling defenders with a no-look, mid-air, wraparound feed to an open teammate under the basket.
Later yet, he was Steve “Moses” Slotemaker, rebounding his own miss three straight times before finally scoring and drawing the foul.
In the end, however, the unfamiliar chant of “Slote, Slote, Slote” was silenced by Rodrick Rhodes. USC’s senior point-forward took over the game in the final 5 minutes, willing the Trojans to a victory they had to have.
With Stanford’s 81-80 victory over Arizona, USC suddenly finds itself alone in second place in the Pacific-10 Conference. A victory Saturday at Washington could make USC (17-9, 12-5 Pac-10) difficult to ignore when the NCAA selection committee meets Sunday.
Rhodes scored 10 of his team’s final 15 points in the last 4:53, reviving the Trojans after a 3-pointer from Slotemaker had stretched WSU’s lead to 80-74.
Rhodes, who finished with a game-high 28 points, nine rebounds and six assists, began to dominate after WSU point guard Blake Pengelly picked up his fourth foul with 10:21 left.
WSU led 70-65 at the time, thanks to a 3 and driving finger-roll from Pengelly, but the 6-foot-4 Rhodes sensed his 5-9 counterpart’s heightened vulnerability.
“What’s the guy’s name - Pengelly? - he had a great game, but he got in foul trouble,” said Rhodes. “I knew he was at a disadvantage and he couldn’t really guard me, so I wanted to take advantage of it and try to get to the hole and make him make a decision.”
The Cougars played a zone defense, in part to protect Pengelly, but Rhodes was undeterred.
“At some point, the quickness stops and the inches take over,” Eastman said. “And that’s what happened. Blake can’t get taller as the game goes on.”
USC’s trapping defense was also a factor late, although it couldn’t keep WSU star Isaac Fontaine from getting two open looks in the final 3:20.
Fontaine missed both attempts. The first would have tied it 85-85 with 3:20 remaining; the second would have made it 88-88 with 22 seconds left.
“We’ll take that shot,” Eastman said. “If it’s offered 10 million times, we’ll try to take it 10 million-and-one times.”
Fontaine led the Cougars (13-16, 5-12) with 21 points, but scored just six after halftime. The second-half dropoff could be attributed to two factors - improved defense from Boseman, and WSU’s uncharacteristically diversified attack.
Carlos Daniel had 15 points and nine rebounds before fouling out with 2:25 left. Pengelly added 12 points and Rodrigo de la Fuente finished with 10.
Stais Boseman and Jaha Wilson added 17 points apiece for USC.
WSU closes the season here Saturday against ninth-ranked UCLA. Fontaine will be honored beforehand.
Southern Cal 92, Washington St. 85
Southern Cal (17-9) - Williams 2-4 3-4 7, Boseman 7-13 2-2 17, Crouse 4-5 4-4 12, Walker 3-5 0-0 8, Johnson 1-2 1-2 3, Rhodes 9-14 9-15 28, Ayuso 0-1 0-0 0, Turner 0-0 0-0 0, Wilson 5-8 7-8 17. Totals 31-52 26-35 92.
Washington St. (13-16) - Fontaine 6-14 7-7 21, Daniel 5-9 5-7 15, Johnson 2-5 0-0 4, De la Fuente 3-7 3-3 10, Jackson 0-1 3-6 3, Pengelly 5-9 1-1 12, Archibald 2-5 0-0 5, Crosby 0-2 0-0 0, Slotemaker 7-12 0-2 15. Totals 30-64 19-26 85.
Halftime-Southern Cal 47, Washington St. 46. 3-Point goals- Southern Cal 4-13 (Williams 0-1, Boseman 1-7, Walker 2-4, Rhodes 1-1), Washington St. 6-18 (Fontaine 2-6, De la Fuente 1-1, Jackson 0-1, Pengelly 1-3, Archibald 1-2, Crosby 0-2, Slotemaker 1-3). Fouled out-None. Rebounds-Southern Cal 33 (Rhodes 9), Washington St. 35 (Daniel 9). Assists-Southern Cal 13 (Rhodes 6), Washington St. 12 (Fontaine, Johnson 3). Total fouls-Southern Cal 23, Washington St. 26. A-5,756.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: Changed from Idaho edition.