Just three weeks ago, the Trojans gave up 85 points to Arizona at McKale Center. Five Wildcats scored in double digits, and the team shot 46% from the field.
Fast forward to Thursday night, and USC looked like an entirely different team on the defensive end, holding Arizona to only 28% shooting en route to a 57-48 victory. With the intensity ratcheted up and tournament implications on the line, the Trojans shut down all of the Wildcats’ offensive options.
“I thought our defense was outstanding … To hold them to 48 points was very impressive for our guys,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “I thought we did a really good job taking some of their inside play away and challenged every three.”
The defensive effort was led by freshman guard Ethan Anderson, who took on the tough assignment of guarding Arizona’s star freshman guard Nico Mannion. Five minutes into the game, with the Trojans down 9-2, Anderson bodied Mannion for a score, stole the inbounds pass, made a layup and proceeded to bother the five-star recruit for the rest of the game. Mannion finished with 11 points and two assists, making only three of his 14 shot attempts.
“Ethan was so tough tonight,” Enfield said. “He’s just such a tough young man and was a huge part of our win.”
With senior forward Nick Rakocevic limited due to an illness, the tandem of freshman forwards Isaiah Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu shared the floor for the majority of the game.
“I thought they played outstanding defense together,” Enfield said. “Isaiah really moved his feet … He was all over the place tonight.”
Okongwu affected the game with a couple of blocks, but his shining moment came with a second left before halftime. Following a missed basket, he gathered the rebound and heaved a shot from well beyond half court. Hit by a defender as he went up to shoot, the freshman spun to the floor as the ball banked in. The Galen Center crowd erupted as his teammates swarmed him on the court.
After the game, Okongwu was nonchalant about his first successful collegiate 3-point attempt.
“I just saw Nico [Mannion] missed a shot,” Okongwu said. “So I just took a chance, got fouled, no call … but I put it in anyways.”
He finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds for his eleventh double-double of the season, and collected three blocks. Senior guard Jonah Mathews rounded out the scoring effort with 14 points, many of which came late in the game to secure the outcome.
“It’s do or die,” Mathews said. “I don’t have another year; I don’t have any more excuses. Every rebound matters, every loose ball matters, every shot matters.”
After losing to Colorado and Utah on the road, this victory was much needed for USC to right the ship. The Trojans are currently projected as a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament and sit one game back of the fourth seed in the Pac-12. They play two more games at home against Arizona State and UCLA, each with major implications.
With so much on the line, Mathews stressed the importance of taking it one game, one play at a time.
“They take the teams that win,” he said. “So as long as you keep on winning … we win, we’re in.”