“The War Room” is a column by Reagan Griffin Jr. about professional sports.
One shot was all it took.
To secure a first-round bye for the Trojans in the Pac-12 Tournament starting March 11. To spoil UCLA’s chances at the No. 1 seed. To make seniors Jonah Mathews and Nick Rakocevic the winningest players in USC basketball history. To send the Galen Center into an uproar the likes of which hadn’t been experienced all season, possibly since the arena’s construction. To cause former Trojan Nick Young to fly to center court to celebrate, punting the back of my head in the process.
Just one shot. One incredibly clutch shot.
And who other than Mathews, a fourth-year senior guard and team captain, to hit the step-back dagger? It only made sense; after all, this was the team’s Senior Night, the same night that he’d become the Trojans’ all-time leader in 3-pointers made. It almost seemed too perfect … all the stars had aligned for this moment.
He’d even dreamed it the night before.
“I was thinking to myself before I went to bed: What if I was going to hit it this way? What if I was going to break the record?” he said. “And it happened, happened.”
However, make no mistake about it: Mathews’ moment is just beginning.
USC is a sleeper. After producing a 22-9 regular season which saw the team beat Arizona, LSU and UCLA and stand toe-to-toe with No. 13 Oregon, the Trojans still haven’t managed to find themselves in conversations amongst the top teams in the nation or even in their conference. Throughout their postseason campaign, they will be viewed as underdogs in just about every game they play in.
Each season, however, seems to produce a couple of teams, and players, that are able to defy the odds. Last year, it was Ja Morant and Murray State. The year before, it was Clayton Custer and Loyola Chicago. This year, it very well could be Mathews and the USC Trojans.
All season long, USC has been desperate for a closer, someone the team could entrust with the ball with the chips down and all bets off. Freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu, as phenomenal as he’s been, doesn’t have a style of play that is suited for such a role. Rakocevic, against certain competition, can be played off the floor in late-game situations due to his size. Sophomore guard Elijah Weaver, even considering his late-game heroics against Stanford, hasn’t proven to be consistent enough down the stretch. It had to be Mathews.
But Mathews hadn’t hit a game-winning shot in his college career up to the UCLA game, so what has given him his recent star status?
He has the ball handling ability needed to create his own shot. He isn’t afraid to stick his nose down and attack the basket. He has been there and done that, from the Pac-12 Tournament to March Madness. He has the confidence and spunk of a clutch performer. He is a natural-born leader, respected and loved by his teammates and coaches.
He is the type of player that thrives in tournament season.
While Mathews might be the frontrunner for the Trojans, the Pac-12 is loaded with potential stardom across the conference.
Look at senior guard Peyton Prichard from Oregon. He is a menace behind the arc, shooting 3-pointers at a 41.5% clip this season. Pritchard can also be relied on in clutch situations — he showed that with a game-winning 3-pointer against Washington on Jan. 18.
Pritchard’s postgame press conference after his Washington shot was a near replica of Mathews, staying calm and collected in the face of glory.
“I don’t fear failure; I work too hard to fear it,” Pritchard said. “I can take all the criticism, but I’ll be right there to take that last shot, to take that pass and to make that play whether it goes good or bad.”
Pritchard is an easy top favorite for Pac-12 tourney MVP — he won the award last year after leading then-No. 6 seed Oregon to a Pac-12 title.
Another player that can take control of a game and send his team deep in the tournament is Cal sophomore guard Matt Bradley.
It seems like any top guard in the Pac-12 has a game-winning shot against the Huskies to brag about. Bradley’s came exactly one week before Pritchard’s in a 61-58 Cal win. Similar to Pritchard and Mathews, Bradley thought his game-winner was business as usual.
“I [told Coach], ‘Let me just give it a go,’ and I made it,” he said.
Bradley has also accumulated numerous accolades through his second collegiate season. He was recently named to the All-Pac 12 Second Team after shooting 3-pointers at a 38.6% clip this season and averaging 17.5 points per game. Cal has been a streaky team, but when Bradley is hot, the team fires on all cylinders.
All potential MVP-caliber players have a memorable shot to their name, but it will come down to who can replicate their heroics in the Pac-12 Tournament to determine who will be the player to remember.
But, given his performance as of late, Mathews appears to be ready to take the mantle.
“The War Room” runs every other Wednesday.