LOS ANGELES—When freshman Jonah Matthews came off the bench and stepped onto the Galen Center floor against Stanford, he made his impact felt immediately. On back-to-back possessions, Matthews stole the ball from Stanford's guards. The first time, he scored a layup of his own. The second time, he dished to Jordan McLaughlin for an emphatic dunk.
Turnovers were at the forefront of Thursday night's Pac-12 matchup, as both teams combined for 39 turnovers in a low-scoring affair where USC never trailed and won 70-56, effectively bouncing back from their first loss of the season at Oregon last week.
The key stat of the game was not only the 21 turnovers USC forced out of Stanford. The Cardinal were able to force 18 Trojan turnovers as well, but USC was able to capitalize on those 21 turnovers by scoring 27 points off of them.
Leading the charge for turnovers was Matthews, who racked up four steals off the bench to garner 24 minutes of playing time as well as Coach Andy Enfield's post-game praise.
"He's earned his minutes defensively," Enfield said of Matthews. "He's our best on-the-ball defender and he's very active."
"Defense is the focal point. If you stop the ball you'll score," Matthews said post-game. "I just take pride in defense because my coaches expect it from me."
In the early going, Stanford turned the ball over four times, allowing USC to get out to a 19-10 lead. The Trojans, however, began turning the ball over themselves and allowed the Cardinal, despite their poor shooting, to get back into the game.
Stanford came into the Galen Center averaging 13 turnovers per game, but in the early going, they turned the ball over a quick four times. USC's overall length and aggressiveness compounded with a zone defense and a full-court press designed to do exactly what it did, coaxed 11 total turnovers out of Stanford in the first half alone.
“We have positions, but everybody on our team is just versatile and can play multiple positions,” Chimezie Metu said.
But USC could not avoid the sloppy play themselves, coughing up the ball nine times in the first half as well. However, they were able to extend their lead by capitalizing on Stanford's 11 turnovers with 16 points off of those turnovers
The Trojans, like they have done most of the season, also used the long ball to fuel their lead at the half. In the first half, they made four of their nine three-pointers. They finished 8-of-25 from behind the arc, but found a way to still score despite the volatitlity of their shooting.
"We didn't shoot well tonight," Enfield pointed out. "We were streaky and had to grind it out."
Just like it did in the first half, the turning point in the second half would come at the hands of another freshman. This time, it was De'Anthony Melton, whose ball-hawking abilities led to a USC run that would all but cement the final result.
Melton stole the ball with ease on one end of the floor, leading to an ensuing 3-to-1 fast-break on the other end where the ball movement was pristine and culminated in a two-handed dunk by Elijah Stewart. Then, with 12 minutes left in the game, a impeccable defensive possession led to Stanford's 15th turnover of the night and a Matthews three-pointer on the next possession that would put the Trojans up 14.
"De'Anthony Melton is probably our best overall defender," Enfield said in his on-court interview following the final buzzer. "[Melton] can guard multiple positions. He does a lot of things, He's able to help us and play bigger than he really is."
Melton and Matthews have both had to play above their expected pay grade as of late. Without the injured Bennie Boatwright, USC is a team experimenting with their lineup combinations every game and sticking with what works on a temporary basis.
On Thursday night, it was another game where Boatwright's absence was of little to no concern thanks to the defensive play of the freshman duo and the team's overall ability to score off turnovers and off the bench.
"Some nights like these, [Boatwright] probably would have made a big difference," Enfield said. "To be 15-1 without Bennie, that means other players have done a tremendous job of winning a variety of ways."
Matthews finished the night with four steals and 10 points. Melton would once again stuff the stat sheet with 12 points, four rebounds and 2 assists coupled with 2 steals as well. Metu's double-double and McLaughlin's game-high 15 points would factor into the final result as well, completing what was yet another team win for Enfield and Co.
Now at 15-1, USC can forget about being undefeated and focus on Pac-12 play. Tough opponents await the Trojans, but so do winnable games provided their defense and their impact freshman continue to thrive under the burden of necessity.
“There’s a lot of growth in us still,” Enfield said. “We have to come out Sunday [vs. Cal] and play better.”