Fans that gave up on the First Four finale, thinking it was over at halftime, missed a show by USC.
The Trojans chipped away at a 17-point first-half deficit to beat Providence, 75-71, in the late game Wednesday at UD Arena. They now meet sixth-seeded SMU (30-4) in the first round Friday.
USC (25-9) scored eight straight points early in the second half and gradually clawed its way back before Chimezie Metu put the Trojans ahead for good at 61-60 with 6:42 left as part of a 13-1 run for his team.
“We’re just a tough unit,” USC forward Bennie Boatwright said. “Our coaches believe in us and we believe in ourselves, so we believe we can come back against anybody.”
Providence (20-13) seemed to have lulled the Trojans to sleep in the first half, though, using a 15-0 run to take a double-digit lead with six minutes left, and the Friars pushed the gap to as many as 17 points shortly before the break. They were up 44-29 at halftime, holding the Trojans without a field goal for the last five minutes.
USC seemed to struggle against the Friars’ zone while shooting just 34.5 percent for the first half, and the Trojan defense wasn’t much better, as Providence shot 55.6 percent and Jalen Lindsey had 15 points by halftime.
“They scored against our zone; they scored against our man,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “We weren’t talking. We got discouraged. We missed a lot of easy shots and I thought it affected our energy on the defensive end. I think that’s human nature at times.
“We have a very young team. … We struggled early finishing shots at the rim, missed some open 3s. And then give Providence credit, they were on fire.”
The Trojans, who had lost a 70-69 thriller to Providence in the first round of the tournament last year, turned it around in both regards the second half, most notably holding Lindsey to two points the rest of the way.
Boatwright led all scorers with 24 points, and Jordan McLaughlin added a double-double for USC with 18 points and 10 rebounds – nine of them in the second half. Metu finished with 15 points and eight rebounds.
Emmit Holt finished with 18 points to lead Providence, which also got 17 points from Rodney Bullock.
“It was a dogfight all the way to the end, and it feels good to come out on top this time,” McLaughlin said.
What’s next: USC heads to Tulsa, where it faces sixth-seeded SMU (30-4) on Friday.
Pivotal play: The Trojans had the gap down to five points twice before Jonah Mathews drained a momentum-swinging 3-pointer with 8:27 left to make it 59-55. That started an 11-1 run to allow USC to take a three-point lead it wouldn’t lose.
Unsung hero: Nick Rakocevic scored seven of his nine points in the second half, all of them as USC had its deficit down to single digits. His steal with 6:53 left set up Chimezie Metu’s layup for the go ahead basket at 61-60.
Spotlight stat: Providence leading scorer Emmitt Holt was sent to the bench with his fourth foul at the 7:45 mark, and USC outscored the Friars 7-0 over the next two minutes before he returned and ended the drought with a layup. By then, USC had the lead.
Crowd count: Wednesday’s attendance was 11,528 to bring the two-day total to 23,383.
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