USC notched its second victory over a team from a power-five conference in a 70-68 victory over LSU on Saturday at the Staples Center.
The Trojans participated in the fourth annual Basketball Hall of Fame Classic; teams participating in the double-header included USC, LSU, San Diego State and Utah.
Following Saturday’s victory, Enfield said the win helped improve the conference’s standing with a strong non-conference victory. "To beat an SEC team like LSU, a terrific team, that was big for us and our league,” Enfield said.
A back-and-forth first half gave LSU a slight edge early in the game. The Trojans offense struggled with multiple scoring droughts, falling behind by seven points going into the second half. USC’s usual size advantage did not play to its advantage against LSU; freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu only recorded 10 points, 6 of them in the first half. Okongwu averaged 18 points per game going into the match.
USC found its outside presence in the second half and pushed for a late lead. Senior forward Nick Rakocevic was able to knock down two three-pointers; he came into the season with zero made three-pointers.
The Trojans freshman guard, Ethan Anderson, had a little trouble getting into the groove during the first half, but Enfield had positive words to say for his performance later on, “our freshmen have to step up and Ethan sure did [in the second half]." Anderson was third in scoring with eleven points and six assists, a sizeable improvement from his zero-point performance last game against Long Beach State.
USC’s second-half performance was powered by its two senior leaders, Jonah Mathews and Rakocevic. The seniors had 15 and 14 points, respectively, to take the top two scoring spots of the game.
Mathews led USC’s comeback with three three-pointers, giving USC its first second-half lead with 4:22 left in the game. Enfield was impressed with Mathew’s performance against a defensively-minded LSU team. “Jonah played like an all-league, first-team guard," Enfield said.
Rakocevic’s impressive early-season performance places him in consideration for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award. He has four double-doubles on the season and has notched a 50% field goal percentage through USC’s early-season games.
Following the game, Rakocevic commented on the battle between USC and LSU. “We had to fight the whole game, I felt like we kept our composure; it was an amazing crowd today, and it was just really fun tonight," Rakocevic said.
Enfield said Rakocevic’s presence has helped USC notch an impressive 10-2 record. “Rakocevic has had huge plays down the stretch of our last few games to help us win."
While USC was powered by its seniors, the Trojans ultimately won with an all-around team performance. Freshman guard Kyle Sturdivant turned in 8 points off the bench, knocking down 2 three-pointers in his 17 minutes of play.
USC’s turning point in the second half was a 13-2 run which erased the 5-point lead LSU maintained through the majority of the game. USC’s late run was followed by a last-minute LSU run; the Tigers came within two points off of late baskets by senior guard Skylar Mays. The game ended with a block from Okongwu over LSU sophomore guard Javonte Smart.
Coach Enfield mentioned the grit of USC coming into the game with a powerful school from the Southeastern Conference. “LSU is extremely tough, they had a lot of good one-on-one players, and to really grind it out like they did, I give our players a lot of credit. They hung tough all night, even though we were trailing most of the game until the last few minutes, it was a great win.”
Enfield said voters should be looking at the Trojans as a top-25 team nationwide. "[In order] to be ranked, you have to beat good teams, and we did that today. We just beat TCU on the road, which was a true road win; we also beat Nevada, a true road win which is a pretty tough place to play. We have a couple of good neutral wins, so we’re doing our part; this is another step of where we’re trying to get to, and that’s to have a good record going into conference play.”
USC notched its fourth-straight win in its non-conference games, recording a 10-2 record. USC’s final non-conference match pits the Trojans against Florida Gulf Coast University, where USC head coach Andy Enfield coached from 2011-2013. The Trojans will then open up conference play with an away trip to both Pac-12 schools in Washington.
USC will be at home for its final match of the 2019 season against Florida Gulf Coast University, which will tip-off on Dec. 29 at 7:00 p.m.