A win over the last-place Washington Huskies was the morale booster USC needed to overcome its recent stretch of three straight losses.
The Trojans had their eyes set on an NCAA Tournament appearance after starting off the season 15-4 and receiving projections as a potential top-seven seed in the tournament. The team’s tough stretch has placed them squarely on the line for being called on Selection Sunday.
After ranking as high as No. 21 earlier in the season, Washington has collapsed with 10 losses in its last 12 games. The team’s lone wins came via a 32-point home beatdown of USC and an 8-point home victory over Oregon State.
Despite their poor season performance, the Huskies gave the Trojans problems in their last meeting. Washington’s defense held USC to 13 of 65 shooting in that matchup.
USC’s roster was depleted tonight with the absence of star freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu, who was placed in concussion protocol. Okongwu leads the team in scoring and rebounds, averaging 16.4 points per game and 8.9 rebounds per game. Freshman guard Kyle Sturdivant was not in tonight’s lineup due to a family tragedy.
The Trojans’ young bench stepped up with freshmen forwards Isaiah Mobley and Max Agbonkpolo receiving increased playing time. Mobley turned in a 10-point performance while Agbonkpolo finished with 6 points.
Washington was able to control the early pace of the game behind a strong showing from freshman forward Jaden McDaniels, who scored 14 of Washington’s 30 first-half points. McDaniels finished with a double-double on 19 points and 12 rebounds.
The Huskies’ starting five did not perform well with two starters — sophomore guard Jamal Bey and freshman guard Marcus Tsohonis — finishing with zero points. Washington’s bench outscored its starters 29-27 on the night.
USC was unable to get any early-game momentum due to another poor shooting performance, a typical trend in the Trojans’ recent games. The team finished the first half on 9-of-33 shooting, falling behind by as many as 7 points with 51 seconds left in the half.
However, the second half signaled a different story.
Early in the half, USC freshman guard Ethan Anderson hobbled off the court with an apparent left leg injury.
“Ethan hurt his knee, hyperextended it,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said following the game. “He could have probably played late if we would have brought him back right away, but then it tightened up and our guys were playing fine.”
Despite the injury, USC was able to overcome a 5-point halftime deficit due to the play of its seniors. Forward Nick Rakocevic rattled off 10 second-half points while guard Jonah Mathews recorded 11 second-half points.
Mathews’ two late 3-pointers sealed the Trojans’ win after Washington fought back and forth all game.
“We’re the seniors, so it comes more than just scoring the basketball,” Mathews said. “It’s leadership, it’s keeping everybody together, just gotta bring it every night, so it’s nothing new.”
Rakocevic rallied the offense while utilizing his teammates off the bench.
“I think Max [Agbonkpolo] did a phenomenal job coming off the bench and giving us a spark,” Rakocevic said. “Guys were able to step up. It’s a team effort, and everybody was able to step up today.”
Tonight’s game was also a homecoming for DeMar DeRozan, a former USC star and current forward for the San Antonio Spurs. DeRozan’s No. 10 jersey was retired at halftime, becoming the seventh jersey retired by USC’s basketball team. DeRozan played just one season at USC and was integral in bringing a Pac-12 basketball championship to the team in the 2008-09 season.
The Trojans are now entering the final stretch of their season with only six games remaining. USC holds a 3-3 record this season against the six familiar foes they will face in the coming matches.
“Every game now is important trying to get to March [Madness], especially at home court,” Mathews said. “We can’t drop anything … It’s getting real, but you just have to stay focused, and it’s going to all come together, just gotta keep winning.”
USC will remain at home for its next matchup against Washington State. The Cougars have turned in a paltry 14-10 performance, recently beating the Huskies. The Trojans beat the Cougars 65-56 on the road last month. The game tips off at 5 p.m. Saturday.