The USC basketball team began their 2019-20 campaign on the highest of high notes. The Trojans invited the perennial powerhouse Villanova Wildcats to the Galen Center for an exhibition game, defeating them 72-61. While the game will not officially count as a win in the team’s record, it provided a boost of confidence as the Trojans embark on their season.
“I think it’s a really important game for us because it gives our players confidence that we can compete. To be able to play like we did was really good for our program,” said head coach Andy Enfield. “I thought this game was certainly not a preseason scrimmage, it was a terrific early college basketball game...you could tell by how hard both teams played.”
All proceeds from the game went to the California Fire Foundation, which provides emotional and monetary support to firefighters and their loved ones, especially those impacted by wildfires in the greater Los Angeles area.
“I would like to thank Villanova for coming out and playing this game; they traveled across the country to do this for charity, and it really means a lot to everybody,” said Enfield. “[Villanova head coach] Jay Wright and I both thought it would be a terrific idea...with all the natural disasters and wildfires of last year, and of course we had one last week...to be able to raise some money and bring awareness to the devastation, we thought it would be a good cause,” said Enfield.
From the initial tip to the final buzzer, USC looked like the more skilled and athletic team. Five-star freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu had a first game to remember; he contributed a double-double, scoring 15 points and collecting 10 rebounds. Senior guard Daniel Utomi was unstoppable from outside, going 5 for 7 from behind the arc. USC’s entire roster contributed to the score sheet: “We have eleven very good basketball players,” said Enfield.
The Villanova Wildcats were led by freshman forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who scored 20 points on 10 of 15 shooting, and sophomore forward Saddiq Bey, a formidable presence on the perimeter and under the rim. Outside of those two, the Wildcats struggled to score. The Trojans’ defense was swarming, as Villanova shot 37.3% from the floor and a paltry 23.5% from three.
Both teams looked shaky to start the game: the Trojans turned the ball over four times in the first four minutes and the Wildcats shot poorly from the floor. After checking in to the game, Utomi provided a much-needed boost for USC’s offense, taking and making three shots from long range. His 12 points, along with sophomore Elijah Weaver’s eight points, accounted for 20 of USC’s 27 first-half points. The Trojans jumped out to an early 19-13 lead, but Villanova crawled back to take a one-point advantage at the conclusion of the first half.
Okongwu shined early in the second half, scoring multiple times and empathically blocking a layup attempt by Bey. Using his size and athleticism to his advantage, Okongwu repeatedly punished Wildcat defenders in the post. USC led by nine with seven minutes to go and firmly held the lead through the end of the game.
Enfield started the two five-star freshmen, Okongwu and Isaiah Mobley, alongside senior Nick Rakocevic. While all three players, standing six-foot-nine or taller, had tremendous size, the imbalance also created spacing problems on offense. “The three bigs is a little challenging; we have to figure out how to get more flow to our offense and really use our size advantage,” said Enfield.
While anticipation was high on the two five-star recruits, it was another freshman, guard Ethan Anderson, that made the biggest impact. During the second half, Anderson took over for three straight possessions, getting past his defender and scoring at the rim. “Tonight, Ethan [Anderson] stepped up in the second half,” said Enfield. In his minutes on the floor, Anderson showcased strong defensive skills and an advanced feel for the game as a freshman point guard. “[Ethan] has it all,” said senior guard Jonah Mathews. “The athleticism, the handles, the defense, guard play, IQ...he’ll be a great player.”
Villanova entered the game as a preseason top 10-ranked team and the highest-ranked of any USC opponent this season. USC’s skill and athleticism in its win over Villanova is an early-season indication that the Trojans can make a statement in the Pac-12 this season.