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March 14, 2009

USC comes back to down ASU

It's hard to try and pick just one.

USC made so many big plays down the stretch Saturday, and so many Trojans stepped up in the game's tensest moments.

A big jumper, clutch free throws, timely steals and blocked shots helped USC secure a place in the NCAA Tournament, winning the Pac-10 Tournament championship 66-63 over Arizona State Saturday at Staples Center.

"I can't even explain how this feels," Dwight Lewis said. "This is something."

After trailing by 15 points at halftime, the Trojans chipped away at the Sun Devil lead for nearly the entire second half.

"I'm really proud of these guys for not surrendering," USC head coach Tim Floyd said.

With just over a minute to play, DeMar DeRozan, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, drove and kicked the ball to the baseline, where Lewis was open.

"I could hear the guys on the bench telling me to shoot it, and I just let it go," Lewis said. "It felt good. I knew it was down as soon as I shot it."

The three-point basket cut Arizona State's lead to one, and after a Trojan stop, Daniel Hackett penetrated and drew the foul. Calmly, he sank both free throws giving USC its first lead since very early in the game.

Then it was Taj Gibson's turn to make a play.

After a timeout, Arizona State turned to the Pac-10's player of the year, James Harden, using a screen to try and get him free with the ball. Gibson and Hackett switched, leaving the Pac-10's best defender to guard the conference's top player.

Harden drove the lane to the left, and Gibson blocked the shot and grabbed the loose ball. After making one free throw putting USC up two, Gibson found himself guarding Harden again, this time contesting a potential game-winning three.

The shot missed, and USC could start to celebrate.

DeRozan led all scorers with 25 points. Hackett added 19, and Lewis scored 13. Jeff Pendergraph led four Sun Devils in double figures with 18 points.

More importantly, though, USC locked down Harden, limiting him to just 10 points on 3-of-9 shooting.

"Hackett's a great defender and a great basketball player," Harden said. "His primary goal was to contain me, and that's all he had to worry about."

Hackett played all 120 minutes during the tournament, and the fiery guard finally found time to relax after the game had ended.

Sitting in front of the media inside the pressroom, Hackett looked down at his shirt. He saw that is said "USC" and "2009 Pac-10 Tournament champions."

Like a boy on Christmas morning who just received the perfect present, he smiled.


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