Not bad for a football school.
Southern California, a longtime powerhouse in passes and punts but not dribbles and dunks, ended Kentucky's Final Four plans in the NCAA tournament. For their trouble, the Trojans next get Duke, another basketball powerhouse.
Sixth-seeded USC feels like it's in the zone now after blowing all but one point of a 21-point lead Thursday night, but still surviving by defeating Kentucky 80-76. That put the Trojans in Saturday night's East Regional championship game against Duke, which defeated UCLA 76-63.
USC (24-9) will be bidding for its first Final Four berth since 1954.
Wildcats Pull Within One Point
Coach Henry Bibby marvels at the resolve of his team, which beat Oklahoma State and Boston College before dispensing with second-seeded Kentucky (24-10).
"The last three games, I've been speechless," Bibby said. "I like being speechless in these situations."
He could have been gulping in the second half as USC's lead melted away against a relentless Kentucky comeback fueled by Keith Bogans and Jason Parker. The Wildcats twice got within a point, the last time with 32 seconds left.
But then David Bluthenthal, who led all scorers with 27 points, dropped in five straight free throws as USC protected the lead.
It was no accident that Bluthenthal was at the foul line. He's an 80 percent free-throw shooter, and the Trojans made sure that every inbounds pass in the last half-minute was in his hands.
For his part, Bluthenthal was happy to carry the burden at the end. "I knew if I was going to the line, I was going to make those shots," he said. "It wasn't really hard to knock those free throws down."
Too Far Down
Meanwhile, Bogans and Parker missed two free throws apiece down the stretch. But without those two, the Wildcats wouldn't have had a shot at overtaking USC.
Bogans scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half, and Parker finished with a career-high. 22.
Besides Bluthenthal, USC had three others in double figures with Sam Clancy scoring 17, Jeff Trepagnier 14 and Brian Scalabrine 13. Brandon Granville finished with eight assists, going over 200 for the second straight season.
Kentucky seemed lost in the first half, sinking in a sea of turnovers and bad shots. By halftime, USC's lead was 43-24, the largest deficit Kentucky has faced at that juncture all season. The Wildcats were down 42-32 against Arkansas in the SEC tournament semifinals, a game they came back to win 87-78.
Bogans remembered that game and the comeback.
"But I think today, we were just too far down," he said. "They kept making big shots every time we got back in the game."
USC Is All Over Tayshaun Prince
Complicating Kentucky's task was the defensive shroud USC placed over Tayshaun Prince. The Wildcats' leading scorer was limited to six points, the first time since November he's been held under 10.
"We knew there were two guys who could beat us, Bogans and Prince," Bibby said. "We concentrated on Prince, forced him to put the ball on the floor and kept him from shooting 3s."
Prince was 0-for-4 from beyond the arc after making 10 of his previous 15 attempts from that distance.
Saul Smith, who had five 3-pointers, said Kentucky missed Prince's contribution.
"We kind of expect Tayshaun to be out there, hitting big buckets," he said. "But some nights, it's not going to be there. Some nights, defenses are going to run two or three players at him. We still had a chance to win the ball game, no matter how many points he scored."
USC just never gave in, tenaciously protecting the lead through the final minutes until Bluthenthal's free throws decided the issue.
For Bibby, it was a satisfying application of the game plan and another win over a highly respected opponent.
"We played No. 7 Arizona, No. 1 Stanford, No. 12 UCLA," he said. "We are playing top teams every other night in our conference."
Now, with Duke next on their dance card, they've got another one waiting in the NCAA tournament.