SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Back into the shadows they go.
Back into the land of afterthought they travel, dragged there Thursday in full public view, too exhausted to kick, too embarrassed to scream.
Back to the back pages they land, a USC basketball team painfully crushed under weighty headlines, wild hype and a bit of wackiness from Henry Bibby.
This mismatch between the fourth-seeded Trojans and 13th-seeded North Carolina Wilmington in the first round of the NCAA tournament was supposed to be the running start of a leap that would change the perception of USC's basketball program forever.
A 93-89 overtime defeat later, and the last impression is that of a skid mark.
Remember how everyone thought the Trojans were headed for a third-round showdown with Duke?
They forgot to first put up their dukes.
Remember how they seemed guaranteed at least a second consecutive appearance in the Sweet 16?
They stunk up the Arco Arena barn.
Forget USC's comeback from a 19-point deficit in the final 10 minutes of regulation.
Forget Errick Craven's three-pointer to tie it in regulation.
Forget Sam Clancy's two blocked dunks, and Jerry Dupree's tipped pass, and all the drama that nearly made this one of the most compelling basketball victories in our town's history.
Because, in the end, it was still a loss, and not just any loss.
It was a loss to an extension campus in an anonymous conference with a record that included defeats to Drexel and Radford.
It was a loss to a school so anonymous, two years ago the charter plane scheduled to pick them up and take them to this tournament instead landed at Wilmington, Delaware.
It was a loss to a school with no names on backs of their shirts, no shirts on half of the members of the pep band, and nobody you'll ever see in the NBA.
"Nobody on the team knew much about them, I had never even heard of them," said Dupree, shaking his head. "So we didn't come to play."
In the first half, they came to argue with other, take silly chances on defense, take quick shots on offense, and generally warrant a question asked by Bibby of Desmon Farmer at the beginning of a timeout.
"Desmon, what the ... are you doing?" he shouted.
At halftime, they trailed by nine points.
Then the second half began, and a similar question needed to be asked of Bibby himself.
"Henry, what the ... are you doing?"
He started the half with starters David Bluthenthal and Dupree on the bench, and little-used Gregg Guenther Jr. and Robert Hutchinson in the game.
Bibby said neither player had been working hard enough, and he wanted to send them a message.
Three minutes later, the message was that-duh-the Trojans couldn't win this game without their best players.
They were outscored 10-2 with Bluthenthal on the bench, fell behind by 18 points by the time he returned to action, and spent the rest of the game sapping their strength while trying to catch up.
Said Bluthenthal: "Coach Bibby has always been quick to do that. He doesn't care who he plays, but I was surprised.'
Said Bibby: "I wanted to get their attention."
He wanted to get their attention?
He certainly got our attention.
That sort of thing may work on a Saturday night in Corvallis, Ore., but in the most important game of the season?
At least Bluthenthal returned in time to score 19 points and grabbed a team-leading seven rebounds.
But Dupree, who last weekend helped the team to a second-place finish in the Pac-10 tournament, sat the bench until the final minutes of the game, when he stole an inbounds pass that led to free throw that set up the game-tying basket.
But by then, his teammates were so exhausted, even the momentum of Craven's three-pointer with seven seconds left in regulation couldn't save them.
There is a reason Clancy, having played every minute since then, missed a layup and two consecutive tips on the first possession of the overtime. He was too exhausted to dunk.
"I couldn't get the lift anymore," he said.
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