USC was given two things on Monday when its name was included in the AP Top 10 for the first time in over four years: national recognition, and heightened expectation. Credit where due to UC Irvine, but most in the college basketball world expected USC to live up to that ranking Wednesday night at Galen Center without too much drama.
There’s a reason the season isn’t simulated on a computer. But while the Anteaters appeared undaunted by the aforementioned ranking and largely proved that expectation wrong, the Trojans’ undefeated record lived to see another day, as a second-half rally helped them erase an eight-point halftime deficit and stave off the upset with a 66-61 victory.
“We knew when we scheduled this game that this was going to be a tough game. And it was,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “You need to be challenged.”
Challenged, USC was. And as it has done at many points this season, when USC had its collective back up against the wall, it turned to its leading scorer and top offensive playmaker: Isaiah Mobley. The junior forward had one of his best performances this season when his team needed it most, collecting 22 points on a highly efficient 9-for-16 from the field.
Alongside Mobley both in the frontcourt and in the stat sheet was redshirt senior forward Chevez Goodwin, who offered a season-high 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting.
USC — a notoriously bad free-throw shooting team the last few seasons — entered play under 58% from the charity stripe this year, but that’s perhaps the department in which Goodwin made the biggest difference (along with his three blocks). Despite entering at below 50% on the year, Goodwin drilled seven of his 11 free-throw attempts, all of which came in the second half, giving USC critical points down the stretch and allowing them to keep UC Irvine from getting over the hump.
“Coach told us at halftime, ‘We can’t do anything more for you guys. This is on you, whether you want to win or not,’” Goodwin said. “I took that to heart.”
Mobley and Goodwin combined for a particularly critical sequence with the game tied at 45 and under eight minutes to go. After Goodwin connected on the front end of a one-and-one, Mobley cleaned up his miss on the back end — one of his game-high 12 rebounds — before putting it back to give the Trojans a three-point lead.
UCI cut the lead to two points twice in the next two-and-a-half minutes, but each time, Goodwin or Mobley answered with a bucket to double the lead. The Anteaters then cut it to three with a jumper from sophomore guard DJ Davis; Mobley extended it to six with a 3-pointer. UCI redshirt senior forward Collin Welp connected from deep to cut it to two; Goodwin went on a personal 4-0 run to push it back to six.
Such was the theme of the night. The Anteaters gave the Trojans fits; one of the two big men responded.
“At halftime, I said some stuff to the team, and so did Chevez,” Mobley said. “I feel like that energy between both of us just carried over. And then once we kinda got the ball rolling, the guys on the team just kept believing in us, which kinda elevated all of us just to keep going, keep taking those shots — and making them.”
Their output compensated for subpar shooting performances from the rest of the Trojans’ starting lineup: Junior forward Max Agbonkpolo (2-for-9), junior guard Boogie Ellis (1-for-4) and senior guard Drew Peterson (1-for-10) combined for just 15 points on the night.
“The nights that our big guys haven’t played well, our guards have played well. That’s why we’re 11-0,” Enfield said. “Tonight our guards didn’t shoot the ball well … That happens.”
Those struggles — and UC Irvine’s lack thereof in the opening frame — were a large part of how the Anteaters built their lead. After USC jumped ahead 12-2 early, the Anteaters drilled three straight 3-pointers in less than a minute to turn the tide, using that kickstart to go up by as many as 10 points in the first half.
“We felt like we kinda needed this game a little bit, just to kinda show us where we’re at as a team — what happens if we’re down a couple points at half?” Goodwin said. “We just embraced the challenge. We didn’t run away from it, we didn’t shy away from it … Pressure’s a privilege. We’re privileged to be in this position right here, to be able to be a Top-10 team. You’re gonna get everybody’s best shot every day and every night.”
The Trojans embraced the challenge in the form of a defensive clamp-down in the second half, holding UCI to a 10% clip from deep and 32% from the field the rest of the way.
“Defensively, we just didn’t look like an elite defensive team [in the first half] like we have been,” Enfield said. “We made some adjustments at halftime. It was really on the players. They came out in the second half and defended like we have the last couple years.”
Goodwin and Mobley took care of the rest.