His back still ached, the tightness building and building during the last half of a long season, in the latter part of a long college career.
Drew Peterson wasn’t his usually lithe self on Saturday night. The senior’s stiff back had slowed him down Thursday and nearly sidelined him for USC’s regular season finale. A report from earlier in the day had gone so far as to declare him out. But when the arena lights went out and the lineup was announced, the fifth-year senior cautiously ran onto the field, as if his presence had never been doubted.
This would be Peterson’s last game at Galen Center – an arena that had bent to his will on more than one occasion.
Saturday wouldn’t be one of those nights, though, even as USC finished its season on a high, skating past Arizona State, 68-65. The Sun Devils failed to force overtime when DJ Horne missed a three-point attempt at the buzzer.
Peterson would pull it off in an effort typical of a USC career, adapting where he was needed. He’d still fight for rebounds, still drive to the ring, still hit bullets to the wing, the usual trademarks of his versatile skills. But the stiffness had stolen the spark that bound them together, forcing Peterson to fight through every possession.
He would finish with nine points, five rebounds and three assists in his Finals, a complete, but modest, line that would not adequately tell the story of his swan song at USC.
His fellow senior would happily pick up the slack, as he has so many times. Boogie Ellis may have spent a year less here than Peterson, but during his two seasons as Trojan he emerged as the undisputed other half of the team’s heartbeat.
Never had that been more true than this past month, with Ellis in the best part of his college career and USC desperate for a difference maker. The point guard continued his torrid stretch Saturday, scoring a game-high 28 points to lead USC once again.
Both seniors would leave a legacy at USC that should play on an endless loop in the school’s highlights for years to come. Together they would hit some of the biggest shots in the biggest moments. But their impact would extend far beyond those brief blips, and both would leave indelible marks on a basketball program on the rise.
Saturday would not be one of those memorable matches. The Trojans did not score for five minutes at the start, a piece that also led to five possession losses. They added three more during the first 13 minutes of the game, throwing foul passes, dribbling over feet and making fateful decisions.
But as so often before this season, USC settled. It held the defense tight, forcing Arizona State to miss its last twelve shots before halftime. While the Sun Devils struggled, the Trojans would go into halftime with a 15-2 run.
They should sweat it out from there, with Arizona State cutting the deficit to just one point in the final seconds.
The win should likely give the Trojans a spot on the safe side of the NCAA tournament bubble, taking some of the pressure off next week’s trip to Las Vegas. USC was already locked in the number 3 seed for the conference tournament. It will face the winner of sixth-seeded Arizona State against eleventh-seeded Oregon State on Thursday at 8:30 PM PST.
How far it goes from there may well depend on how far the pair of seniors can carry them.