USC had every opportunity.
Down one point at No. 3 Kansas with 6.4 seconds left to play, the Trojans had a play set up where Donte Smith would inbound the ball to Jio Fontan and then feed it in the post to Nikola Vucevic, who had great position on Kansas' Marcus Morris.
But the plan went awry. The Jayhawks' Brady Morningstar evaded two screens set for him as Fontan cut across the court before the pass from Smith, and Fontan, making his USC debut and more than a bit nervous, caught the ball with Morningstar right on him. He then passed the ball inside to Vucevic.
Only he didn't -- he stepped out of bounds on his first pivot upon receiving the ball, video replays showed, and Kansas took control of the ball with 5.5 seconds to play.
USC then fouled KU's Tyrel Reed, the Jayhawks' best free throw shooter. He made the first and intentionally missed the second, forcing USC to scramble for possession of the ball as the clock ticked down. Point guard Maurice Jones had a solid heave on a would-be game-winner from halfcourt but came up a bit short.
It was that kind of morning for USC, who played well considering the circumstances in an intimidating environment at Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse -- but not well enough, as the Jayhawks extended their home winning streak to 65 games and topped USC 70-68.
Kansas guard Josh Selby made his debut for the Jayhawks and made good on all his pregame buzz, connecting on the game-winning 3-pointer with 24 seconds to play and scoring a game-high 21 points. But Fontan was respectable in his corresponding debut -- 15 points on nine shots -- and Trojans reserve guard Donte Smith nearly won the game himself, scoring 17 points in the second half and finishing with a team-high 20.
This is not a bad result for USC. In fact, this is probably -- all things considered -- the Trojans' best performance this season.
Remember, this team hasn't won a true road game since last February. Kevin O'Neill's team followed all of its self-prescribed keys to the game well, put together a solid second-half comeback and hung tough until the end.
They held Kansas (10-0) to a season-low of 39 percent shooting from the field, shot 45 percent themselves and really made the Jayhawks' high-octane offense look medium-octane at best. Forward Alex Stepheson played his best game of the year and looked nearly able to hold the ball in his broken left hand for the first time since the season opener. Vucevic got it going in the second half and looked like a true offensive weapon then, forcing the Morris twins out of their element defensively.
Where to go from here?
Well, in one sentence: USC's freshmen need to stop playing like freshmen. The trio of pieces O'Neill has relied on heavily this season -- guards Maurice Jones and Bryce Jones and forward Garrett Jackson -- played poorly Saturday, combining for only two points and six turnovers in 54 minutes.
Mo Jones, playing point guard but switching off the ball some when Fontan brought the ball off the court, made very few advances into the lane and was not at all a playmaker for the Trojans. He was tentative as a shooter and looked uncomfortable offensively in the second half -- not to mention the laughingly bad pass he made with five minutes to go that was picked off and dunked by Markieff Morris.
Bryce Jones earned a costly technical foul a minute prior to that and didn't score a point on the day, missing six field-goal attempts. Jackson appeared briefly in the first half and picked up a quick foul.
O'Neill talked these guys up all preseason and has continued to do so in the early parts of this season. They came up completely flat Saturday.
USC (6-5) won't go anywhere with performances like this from the key trio.
No. 7 Tennessee looms Tuesday. The Volunteers, who USC upset at home a year ago Sunday, will be ranked a lot lower by the time USC goes to Knoxville after consecutive losses this week, but the importance of the game for the Trojans won't be lessened.
A loss at Thompson-Boling and USC will have a lot of ground to make up in Pac-10 play to qualify for the NCAA Tournament -- almost too much ground.