STANFORD -- Given a chance to build momentum for a potential run at the NCAA tournament, Stanford stumbled Thursday night -- badly.
In fact, the 65-64 loss to USC before an announced crowd of 4,367 at Maples Pavilion stands as an inexplicable and inexcusable result considering the opponent, the location and the stakes.
With its postseason fate in the balance, the Cardinal fell behind by 14 points early in the second half, was dreadful from the foul line (4 of 12) and failed to execute its half-court offense in a pressure situation.
Despite it all, Stanford had a chance to win until guard Chasson Randle missed a contested jumper from the right corner as time expired.
"In the first half, we weren't ready to play and they were ready for a fight,'' forward Josh Huestis said. "This is an awakening. It will bring us down to earth after playing well the last couple games.''
Stanford entered the week with a solid strength of schedule (No. 38) and mediocre power rating (No. 57), but it also had a poor record (4-8) against top-50 teams, an important metric in determining which teams receive at-large berths to the NCAA tournament
That combination equates to a team on the outskirts of the March Madness bubble, a team that has to not only collect quality wins down the stretch but avoid bad losses.
Stumbling at home against USC (power rating: 105) qualifies as a bad loss -- one that likely leaves the Cardinal (15-10, 6-6) with one avenue to the NCAAs: Win the Pac-12 tournament and the automatic bid that comes with it.
"It's an unfortunate loss, but we still have six conference games to go,'' said coach Johnny Dawkins, whose team plays UCLA on Saturday.
Stanford and USC exchanged baskets in the opening minutes, with Huestis providing the bulk of the Cardinal's offense. His back-to-back-to-back jumpers from the right wing gave the Cardinal a 15-11 lead and prompted a USC timeout.
The Trojans settled down and tightened up their defense, limiting Stanford to just four baskets over the final 11 minutes of the half.
While the Cardinal sputtered, USC found its rhythm, slowly churning to a 28-21 lead with two minutes remaining.
Sharpshooting guard J.T. Terrell took it from there, draining two 3-pointers in the final minute -- including a 30-footer just before the buzzer -- to give the Trojans a 35-23 halftime lead.
"Getting the lead in the first half gave us confidence,'' USC interim coach Bob Cantu said. "We knew at some point the other team is going to make a run, so you've got to withstand that."
Stanford's run started early in the second half and coincided with Randle locating his perimeter touch. He drained three 3-pointers, scored in the lane and converted a lay-up -- a 13-point barrage in seven minutes.
The Trojans fumbled and stumbled, but they didn't fold. The lead was 65-59 with 41.6 seconds left when Cardinal forward Dwight Powell scored five consecutive points to make it interesting.
With 18.7 seconds left, the Cardinal sent USC's Eric Wise to the foul line. He missed both free throws, giving Stanford a chance to win in regulation. But the Cardinal's half-court offense bogged down when the first option, Randle, wasn't available. At that point, guard Aaron Bright drove to the basket and had his pass knocked out of bounds with 1.8.
Randle's last-gasp jumper clanked off the rim, allowing USC to escape with its second victory of the season over Stanford -- by a combined three points.
"Teams know our offense and are prepared for it,'' Huestis said. "We have to find a way to counteract that.''
Time is running short.