Gabe Pruitt curled up on the bench, his jersey pulled over his head to hide the tears.
Even for a team that exceeded all expectations by making the Sweet 16, the end of a season hurts.
Seemingly on the way to another remarkable victory in this NCAA Tournament, USC fell apart in the second half Friday, blowing a 16-point lead in a 74-64 loss to top-seeded North Carolina at Continental Arena.
“We had the game, Pruitt said. “We had a big lead and we let it go. … Its tough to swallow that, knowing we had the game and we gave it up so easily.
The Trojans started the second half on a 7-0 run to take a 49-33 lead on the reeling Tar Heels.
Then, still half an hour before midnight Eastern Time, everything went awry.
North Carolina finally started taking advantage of its edge in size, pounding the offensive glass for tip-ins and second-chance opportunities to claw back in the game.
Any resistance USC had inside took a big hit when forward Taj Gibson picked up his fourth foul with 12:25 remaining and the Trojans ahead 57-45.
As soon as he took the bench, the Tar Heels began an 11-2 run. Six of the points came inside from Brandan Wright.
With 8:23 remaining and the lead down to 59-56, USC coach Tim Floyd took a chance and put back in Gibson.
The boost didnt help as North Carolina scored the next 11 points after Gibson returned, extending is run to 22-2. All 22 points either came inside or from the free-throw line.
“There was nothing we could really do, said Nick Young, who scored 15 points in what could be his final game as a Trojan. “Theyre a great team. They were knocking down their shots and we werent. We were making turnovers and misses. … They just played great down the stretch. Thats what you should expect from a No. 1 team.
The Tar Heels took their first lead of the second half 60-59 on a tip-in by Danny Green following a missed layup. A few minutes later, on a reverse layup from Wayne Ellington around Gibson, North Carolina was up by eight points.
Despite the loss, USC players had little to be disappointed about after setting a school record with 25 victories.
Expectations will be higher next season, especially if Young returns. USC is expected to add the top recruit in the nation in Huntington, W.Va., guard O.J. Mayo.
“I think as long as Tim Floyd is coach, this is going to be a national powerhouse, Lodrick Stewart said. “This is going to be one of the elite teams in the country and only going to get better.