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Jonah Mathews’ senior night dagger against UCLA gives USC a first round bye

By Rich Ruben

Senior guard Jonah Mathews had a dream Friday night that he would set a new career record for three point shots and make the game winning shot to beat the Bruins. His dream came true in a 54-52 USC win, and in a far more exciting manner than any dream. The Trojans poor free throw shooting kept the Bruins in the game. With 1 1/2 minutes left Jonah made one of two free throws to extend the lead to three. Fifty seconds later Jonah (the Trojan who is a team best 76% from the line) missed two more free throws and the lead remained three. 

After a basket by the Bruins’ Chris Smith cut the lead to one, with 27 seconds left, the Trojans’ second best free throw shooter, Onyeka Okongwu, missed another pair from the line. Ethan Anderson was called for a foul on what appeared to be a questionable call with 9 seconds left, and Cody Riley made the first of two to tie the game. After a Trojan timeout to set up a last play, Riley made the second foul shot and gave UCLA a one point lead. 

Now, back to the dream: during the timeout Coach Andy Enfield called a play for Jonah. After Riley’s free throw Jonah calmly brought the ball up court with the crowd roaring, he received a high screen Onyeka.  Depending on how the defense played the screen, Jonah had the option to drive to the basket or step back for a three. He took the three, and knew it was good when it left his hands. That shot gave the Trojans a 54-52 lead with a second left. With no timeouts, the Bruins couldn’t do anything and the SC team and staff, along with former Trojan Nick Young, mobbed the hero. 

Earlier in the second half, Mathews made his third three of the game, tying Elijah Stewart’s career record for made threes. A few minutes later he made another to set a new career mark, and his final game winning shot was his fifth three of the game. After the game Mathews said that he had never made a game ending shot before, and that he will remember this night for the rest of his life. Jonah made 4 of his threes in the last nine minutes and finished with 19 points, 5 rebounds and 3 steals. 

The Trojans played great defense the entire game. UCLA made only 28% of their shots in the first half, and USC led at the break 24-22. In the second half, the Bruins shot a little better, but they only made 31% for the game while USC connected on 58% in the second half and 41% for the game. The Trojans made only 5-12 from the line, while the Bruins stayed in the game by making 14-15 free throws. Most of the Trojans’ offense came from Jonah and Big O, who finished with 16 points on 8-12 from the field including two shots from around 15 feet, shots he rarely took during the season. 

Almost the entire Bruin team struggled against the USC defense. Chris Smith, their best player, was 4-12 from the field. Jaime Jaquez was 1-8, Tyger Campbell made 3-11, and Jack Kyman made only 1 of 5. The only Bruin who had a good game offensively was forward Cody Riley who made 4-9 from the field and 5-6 from the line for 13 points. The Trojan guards dominated the game on defense. After the game Andy Enfield said that, “Our offense is streaky, but we win on defense.” Enfield said before the game that SC was 14-0 when they limited the opponent to 65 or under; that’s now 15-0. 

The Trojans completed the regular season with a 22-9 record, and tied for third place in the Pac-12 at 11-7. The win, combined with more chaos in the conference on Saturday earned the Trojans the 4 seed next week and a bye in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.

There were five seniors and their families honored before the game. In a demonstration of how college basketball has recently changed, two of the seniors are grad transfers (Daniel Utomi and Quinton Adlesh) and another is walk on Anderson McKay, who missed the entire season due to an injury suffered during pre season practice. The other two seniors have been a big part of the team for the last four years. Jonah Mathews and Nick Rakocevic are close friends and roommates, and both passed the career 1,000-point mark earlier this year in the same game.  They are now the two Trojans players with the most career wins.

The Trojans started slowly, and had trouble getting the ball inside to Big O. When he went to the bench at the 12 minute mark, he had not taken a shot and barely touched the balk on offense. Andy said after the game that they made an adjustment and moved Okongwu out to the foul line, which allowed him to get the ball more often. 

Students were lined up outside Galen two hours before the game, and the lower tier student section was full a half hour before tip. The game was announced as a sellout, though there were some empty seats in the upper deck in the closed end and in the two student corner sections in the upper deck near the open end. I’d guess there were between 8,500-9,000 in the arena. The crowd was loud, and gave the team a real home court advantage.  

Ethan Anderson had a very good stat line. He finished with 5 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists and no turnovers. UCLA entire team had only 8 assists. 

The game was probably Big O’s last game at Galen. Okongwu normally has the same expression practically all of the time, no matter the situation. As he has said several times during the season, he played in a lot of big games before he arrived on campus, and he doesn’t get nervous. Okongwu carried the team in the middle 20 minutes at both ends, and then Mathews took over from there. If it is indeed Big O’s final home game as a Trojan, he ended with a great performance.

There was a statistical oddity in this game. USC made 41% of their field goal attempts, 41% from three, and 41% from the free throw line. The third 41 turned this game into a nail biter, especially with UCLA making 14-15. 

A Lot Of Pageantry At This Game 

Justin Dedeaux, Rod’s son and a former assistant baseball coach at Troy, presented several players celebrating the 50 year reunion of the 1970 national championship team.

Also in attendance were former Trojan football players Adoree’ Jackson, Rasheem Green, Jordan Simmons and Frostee Rucker. Adoree’ was on the court throwing shirts to the crowd during one time out. Current quarterbacks Kedon Slovis and JT Daniels were throwing shirts during another timeout. 

The entire Trojan football coaching staff also threw shirts. And one big question was answered: when it comes to throwing shirts, Todd Orlando has the best arm. 

At least one basketball recruit was in attendance, along with signee Evan Mobley. It was a great show and atmosphere for any recruit. This win completes the Trifecta – a November football win and two basketball wins over the Bruins. After the game the Victory Bell was on the court and Adoree’ was the first one to ring it. 

Additional Comments By Coach Enfield

Andy Enfield was pretty charged up after the game. A few more quips than usual. 

This was a typical 2020 USC basketball game. “Jonah missed those free throws on purpose to set up that last shot.” 

“We’re playing very good defense. The assistant coaches have worked very hard on defense. We changed a little bit on how we taught defense this year.”

“In trying to build a program these wins are huge and help establish credibility for the program. It is an amazing way for Jonah and Nick to close their SC careers.” Jonah is a better defensive player than on offense and Andy thinks he is the best defender in the league. “Jonah’s basketball IQ is as high as anyone we’ve coached. He has a great competitive spirit.”

When Nick and Jonah came in as freshmen, the Trojans had a lot of talented players: McLaughlin, Metu, Stewart, and Boatwright were all there. The two freshmen came in and competed right away, and have been great competitors. 

Nick is much better in controlling his emotions this year. The flagrant foul in the second half was his first in a long time. 

Andy said with a laugh that Big O never missed a free throw in a pressure situation in four years of high school. He said he would remind O in the locker room. “ (O) made a few good passes from the high post, and played a great game. His biggest thing is turnovers. When he gets sped up, he can make mistakes.”

After the game a lot of guys got wet in the locker room with water. President Folt came in and said a few words and to offer congratulations.

Looking toward the Pac-12 Tournament, Andy said that the extra day of rest they earned with this win will help.

Post Game Comments From Jonah 

Andy told him during the final timeout that they were putting the ball in Jonah’s hands. “I knew it was live or die and I wanted to live. There was a high ball screen and I knew I could take the big man,” who switched to cover him. Jonah said that he will live with this memory forever and it was “a dagger in UCLA’s heart.”

“It is super special to end it this way.  I’m super grateful that I came here.” 

After these three big wins the team’s confidence is “ultra high”.

Jonah was asked what the team needs to improve as they move into post season play. He said that they should be getting more transition baskets and that they need to create more easier baskets. 

Post Game Comments From Onyeka 

Jonah is the senior captain and O said he looks up to him. Jonah is a great player to play with.  O set the screen on the last play: “I knew the last shot was going in.”

He wasn’t playing as aggressively as he should early in the game, and when he came back after his first rest in the first half he tried to be more aggressive. (In the last 30 minutes he showed why he is expected to be a lottery pick this Spring.)

And One 

The last three home wins over Arizona, ASU and UCLA have been as fun, hard fought and entertaining as any three straight home games in many years. The Trojans believe they can stay in the game against any team with their smothering defense. The coaching staff entered this season believing that there would be more offensive production from the guards and that there were several good outside shooters on this team. It hasn’t turned out that way. Jonah and Daniel Utomi have been much better in the second half of the season from three point range, but as a group the guards haven’t made shots consistently.

As expected, the Trojan big men outplayed the Bruins, and it came down to whether the Trojan guards could hold their own. In this game, Jonah and the rest of the guards did their part. The perimeter defense was great from the outset and never relaxed.

The Trojans almost lost this game at the free throw line. Free throw shooting has been a season long problem, and if they can’t do a lot better than 41%  they will lose a game in post season play they might have otherwise won. 

Now it’s on to Las Vegas, with the team coming off a great three game home stand. The Trojan record for wins in a season is 26, set three years ago. It would take a lot, but this team has a shot of tying or even breaking that record. There isn’t a team in the conference that the Trojans believe they can’t beat.