USC gets needed victory after tough week on and off the court
This had been a tough past week for the USC basketball program -- on the court and off.
Trojans coach Andy Enfield would say Thursday night that this win -- this much-needed win -- was for freshman guard Kyle Sturdivant, who was back home in Georgia following the tragic death of his father late last week.
The on-court adversity doesn't compare to that emotional strain, of course, but for the Trojans' NCAA tournament pursuit the pressure was also mounting after their first three-game losing streak of the season.
And if they were going to break that skid against Washington, they were going to have to do it without leading scorer and rebounder Onyeka Okongwu, who remains day-to-day while working through the concussion protocol.
So that was the backdrop against which USC took the court Thursday night, falling down by as many as 7 points late in the first half before taking control down the stretch for a 62-56 win over the Huskies inside Galen Center.
"I'm very proud of our team rallying around Kyle. We love Kyle. He's such a wonderful young man and he's such a hard worker. So it was really great to see our team rally around him," Enfield said. "Wins and losses, we lost [three] games in a row, but basketball becomes secondary when it's life and death and family and things like that. So I'm very proud of our team. No one wants to ever go through this as a family, an individual or a program like our program. But our players are there for him."
Without Okongwu, with starting point guard Ethan Anderson going down with a hyperextended knee in the second half and his backup Sturdivant at home dealing with his tragic loss, the Trojans (18-7, 7-5 Pac-12) got exactly what they needed from their two seniors.
Nick Rakocevic delivered 19 points and 9 rebounds and Jonah Mathews scored 16 points. Freshman Isaiah Mobley also stepped up with 10 points and 7 rebounds while replacing Okongwu in the starting lineup.
Mathews was especially clutch when it mattered most, keying the pivotal swing in the game late.
USC was protecting a tenuous 3-point lead with a little more than 5 minutes to go when Mathews connected on a floater and then drained a fastbreak pull-up 3-pointer on the next possession.
"The first half I got a steal and they blocked my shot, so I was like, OK. This one … I knew they were all going to run to the paint -- they weren't going to stop and guard me at the 3 -- so I was like, wide open, take it," Mathews said of his thought process on that transition 3. "That's what coach is telling me, so I just stopped, popped, hit it. I just didn't want to get my shot blocked again -- I wanted to actually get the points."
Those points pushed USC's lead 52-44 with 4:42 to play, and after Washington's Isaiah Stewart made two free throws, Mathews struck again with a long 3 from the top of the key to make it a 9-point lead at 55-46.
Rakocevic would add some key points a little bit later, drawing a foul in the paint while converting his shot as well. He made the free throw to peak the lead at 58-48 with 2:47 to play.
Washington (12-13, 2-10) scored the next five points on an Elijah Hardy 3 and a Nahziah Carter layup, but that's as close as it would get.
Rakocevic's 19 points were the most he's scored in conference play, and Mathews late surge came after a tough shooting start to the game (he finished 5 of 13 overall) -- but right on time for the Trojans.
"I mean, it's on us like every night," Mathews said of he and Rakocevic's role as seniors. "We have Big O, he's our leading scorer and rebounder, but we're the seniors. It's more than scoring and basketball; it's leadership, it's keeping everybody together, just more than that. So we've got to bring it every night, so it's nothing new. We've just got to keep it going."
Said Enfield: "That's what seniors do. They're supposed to step up and make shots. I think he was 2 for 9 at the time and ended up 3 of this next 4 and that was huge."
Mobley was also big. His 10 points marked only the second time he's scored in double figures during Pac-12 play, but more than that he was matched up with Stewart -- Washington's star freshman big man -- all night on the defensive end and helped hold him to 13 points and 11 rebounds.
"Isaiah played a great game, played so hard. Guarding Isaiah Stewart the whole game, that's tough," Enfield said. "And then [Nate] Roberts is big and [Sam] Timmins, those are big guys. Stewart doesn't take a possession off, he's putting his body on you every time down the court. We had to double him. If you noticed, we double-teamed him. … Isaiah, Nick, especially Isaiah I thought did a really good job not fouling him, being physical, but also fighting for position and not giving anything."
USC needed this one.
The Trojans were coming off not only their first three-game losing streak of the season but one of their singularly worst performances after coughing up a season-high 24 turnovers in a 66-64 loss at Arizona State last Saturday night.
"The video session we showed our team was embarrassing," Enfield said. "It's not, the teams that we play, most of the turnovers are self-inflicted. Meaning they're just turnovers that are preventable if you use basic fundamentals and have a presence about you."
The message was received as the Trojans had a season-low 6 turnovers Thursday night.
In earning the season-split with Washington, they remained within striking distance of the top of the Pac-12 standings -- moving a game behind co-leaders Colorado and Oregon, who are both 8-4 in league play. (Arizona State and Arizona were both 6-4 at the time of this story with games still pending.)
"Our whole team just kind of rallied around those two guys that were out and played really good basketball," Enfield said.
-Enfield said Okongwu's status for USC's game Saturday vs. Washington State is still in question, saying it's still day-to-day.
-On Anderson's injury, he said: "I'm not sure how bad it is. He could have probably played late if we would have brought him back right away, but it tightened up and our other guys were playing fine. We just hope he's OK."
-Enfield also noted that guard Daniel Utomi missed a couple practices this week with a knee injury and his status was in doubt at one point. He ended up shooting 2 of 10 overall and 0 of 6 from 3-point range to finish with 7 points and 5 rebounds.
-Rakocevic also addressed the emotional toll of supporting Sturdivant through this tragedy, as his father Gary died in an accident.
"That's our brother. Obviously, we're always going to be there for him. What happened to his family, it's terrible. Our thoughts and our prayers go out to him and his family. We're here for him. This win was for him and his family," he said. "… We've got his back, just like we've got Big O's back. Like Jonah said, we're a family."
DeMar DeRozan honored
At halftime, USC retired DeMar DeRozan's No. 10 in the rafters of Galen Center, and the NBA star addressed the crowd.