By Rich Ruben
Many things had gone wrong for the Trojans in the last few weeks, from heart breaking losses to the death of Kyle Sturdivant’s father. From injuries to Onyeka Okongwu and Isaiah Mobley to the viral illness suffered by Nick Rakocevic, Jonah Mathews, and Drake London. Thursday night the Trojan players put all of that behind them and took down Arizona and its No. 7 NET ranking with a 57-48 win by playing a solid 40 minutes of tenacious defense.
SC took the lead for good with 1:19 left in the first half, and capped the half with Big O’s three quarter court shot that banked in to beat the half time buzzer for a 26-21 lead. The Wildcats were only 8-31 from the field and 2-15 from three in the first half. The second half wasn’t any better for the visitors, who shot 28% for the game and 11% from three. The Trojans forced the bigger Wildcats to take 26 three point shots; the two Wildcats with the best shooting percentage from behind the arc were both 1-7.
Before the game Coach Andy Enfield said that he wasn’t sure how well or long several players could go. Nick Rakocevic was still sick and had lost 16 pounds in the first two days of his illness. His roommate Jonah Mathews also suffered from the same virus and had played thru the illness last Saturday with great difficulty. Drake London now has the same virus and was not in the arena. Big O went to the doctor Wednesday; after the game he said there was concern he also had the virus, but fortunately he does not. The ankle injury Isaiah Mobley suffered in the Utah game last weekend is not fully healed. Kyle Sturdivant’s father’s funeral was Thursday and he is still in Georgia with his family. Listening to this pre game update on the status of half of the players wasn’t promising.
Still, this group pulled off the upset, which gives the Trojans a 20-9 overall record and 9-7 in conference play. After Thursday’s games SC is in sixth place, a half game behind fifth place Arizona and a game behind fourth place Colorado. On the other hand, the Trojans are only a half game ahead of seventh place Stanford. With two games left in the regular season, both against teams ahead of the Trojans, they can finish anywhere in the top seven spots.
Several of the Trojans had big nights. They shot 42.6 % for the game and 45% in the second half and were 6-20 from three. Big O had 11 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks and a steal, and he altered several other shots. Jonah was 4-10 from the field and 5-6 from the line for 14 points along with 5 rebounds, and he was very active defensively. Daniel Utomi was 4-9 for 9 points. Isaiah made two threes and finished with 8 points and 2 steals. After his second three he ran back down the court and shouted at the Arizona bench. Elijah Weaver had 8 points, 6 boards, 3 assists and 2 steals. And Ethan Anderson outplayed his opposite number freshman point guard and likely first round draft pick Nico Mannion. Ethan finished with 7 points and 4 steals, though two late turnovers caused Enfield to bring Elijah back to finish out the game.
Nick was limited and played only 11 minutes, and clearly is not fully recovered. He picked up his third foul only seconds into the second half, and was not a factor in the game. Everyone else appeared to play at or near full strength, though after the game Andy, Jonah and Big O all said that the injuries and illnesses are still a problem. The major negative was allowing the Cats to grab 14 offensive rebounds but the Trojans were out manned and out sized with Nick not able to contribute.
Arizona had seven fouls early in the second half, but SC couldn’t take advantage. The Trojans were only 11-17 from the line; Elijah made only 1-5, and missed the front end of a couple one and ones, but in all other phases of the game he played very well; he has become a very good slasher and is able to convert on difficult shots at the rim.
Arizona has three freshman who are considered likely first round picks. Forward Zeke Nnaji was held in check and made only 5 of his 13 shots. Point guard Mannion was worse at 3-14 and 1-7 from three. The third super freshman is shooting guard Josh Green who did not make the trip, apparently due an injury suffered last week.
Andy Enfield’s Post Game Comments
– “I thought the defense was outstanding; really impressive.” “Coach (Jason) Hart had a great game plan. We did a really good job in taking away the inside. Really proud of our guys.” He said that practice was hard this week because Jonah and Nick did not practice at all, and O missed some practice time. Andy said that Jonah’s illness caused his early struggles and that it took awhile for Jonah to get his legs. Andy empathized how tough the last couple of weeks have been. He added that “Jonah was spectacular down the stretch and I am so proud of Nick.”
– Arizona’s guards were a combined 5-32 and had very few open looks.
– Andy complimented Elijah for his all around play, and said “he did a little bit of everything.”
– He said the plane trip home last Sunday from Salt Lake was difficult with several sick players; Andy gave the impression that he believed this was a real gut check game for his team, and he loved how hard they fought hard under difficult circumstances.
Jonah Mathews and Onyeka Okongwu’s Post Game Comments
– Jonah said that he feels about 75% now, and that this was “the worst sickness I’ve ever had.” Big O said that he was tired after the game. As the game was winding down, Jonah told Big O: “I know you’re tired, but we need you for the last five minutes.”
– O thought he was fouled on his last second heave to end the first half, and laughed that he didn’t get the call. It is his first made three of the season.
– Jonah said that they played Arizona’s screens very well, and executed their defensive switches. He said this was a big part of the defensive success. He finished the media session by demonstrating that he has learned some coach speak in his four years under Enfield by saying: “No one feels sorry for us. We have injuries. We showed fight and we’re warriors.” He added that this is “do or die. It’s my last season, and I don’t have any more opportunities.”
– Former Trojan forward Darion Clark was at the game. Clark played in 2015-2016 and then signed with the NFL Chicago Bears practice squad as a tight end.
The Trojans surprised most fans at the game and maybe even themselves with their strong play. Arizona kept within striking distance as a result of their offensive rebounds, but never got closer than 3 in the second half. Nick’s playing time was limited by illness and foul trouble. Isaiah had two fouls in the first half and had to sit, but he didn’t pick up another and played 27 minutes on his sore ankle. Big O played 34 minutes, which explains the need for Jonah’s pep talk. When only one of the SC big men was on the court the Wildcats had a significant size advantage; Daniel or Elijah had to guard players 6’9” or taller. The smaller Trojans matched Arizona’s size with determination; the Cats 14 offensive boards resulted in only 11 points.
ASU comes into Galen on Saturday. They have a good 6-4 road record, though they lost Thursday at Pauley to streaking UCLA. Another Trojan win would push SC further up the right side of the Tournament bubble. The sick and injured Trojans have less than 48 hours to get ready. SC could have/should have won in Tempe on February 8. If the SC guards can control ASU‘s super quick point guard Remy Martin nearly as well as they defended Nico Mannion they have a good chance to sweep the Arizona schools this weekend.