By Rich Ruben
It took a tip-in by Nick Rakocevic with .2 seconds left for the Trojans to beat TCU 80-78 and secure a badly needed road win in Fort Worth. The Trojans played a great first half and led 47-34 at the break. They came out after half time and extended the lead to 18, before things started unraveling. It was not until 8 seconds remained that TCU pulled even on a nice shot inside by Frogs’ center Kevin Samuel on which he was also fouled. A very poor free throw shooter, Samuel missed the go ahead shot, giving the Trojans a chance to avoid overtime. Ethan Anderson raced the ball across half court and found an opening thru the lane. His shot rolled off the front of the rim, and in what may be a highlight moment in this season, Nick came from the top of the key and followed Ethan to the basket for the winning tip-in.
There would have been no need for the last second drama if the Trojans had made free throws, but they made only 14-24 for the game including several misses on the front end of one and ones. In the final minute they missed four straight, opening the door for the Horned Frogs.
This was a key win for SC. There are only three games left before conference play begins, and only one game against a “name” opponent, on December 21 against LSU at Staples. The Trojans have now played five games against teams that may be considered quality opponents, beating Nevada on the road and Harvard in the Orlando Invitational and losing to Temple at home and being crushed by Marquette in Orlando. The Trojans next game is an afternoon tip at home against relatively weak Long Beach State on December 15.
What We Learned About The Trojans
- Jonah Mathews had a great all around game. He had 20 points on 7-13 from the field and 4-7 from three. As importantly, he played very aggressive defense against TCU’s best player, 6’6” guard Desmond Bane, who was held to 13 points on 3-10 from the field and only 1-3 from three. At practice this week, the coaches pushed Mathews and the rest of the guards to deny the Frogs and particularly Bane three point shots. Mission accomplished.
- Jonah looks like he has broken out of his shooting slump. He had 12 in the first half against Harvard, and against the Frogs he carried the offense at times.
- At least for one night, we learned what the Trojans would do if they needed a last second basket. The Trojans don’t have a true go-to scorer. Jonah had a big game, but Andy elected not to put the ball in his hands After Samuels tied the score, TCU coach Jamie Dixon used his last timeout before the free throw to set his defense. This decision was a big help to the Trojans, who were out of timeouts. Andy decided to have freshman point guard Ethan Anderson try penetrate to get a quality shot, get fouled or pass to Big O inside if the defense collapsed on Ethan. Among the guards, Ethan is the best creator on the dribble. He got the ball all the way to the rim but missed, setting up Nick’s heroics. No one tried to keep Nick away from the basketball, and he sprinted to the rim from 15-18 feet out for the winning tip.
- Other than from the line, the Trojans played well on offense, making 30-57 from the field and 6-13 from three. They were hot in the first half, making 58% of their shots. Big O had 13 points for the game, but only took 9 shots. He also had 6 rebounds and 7 blocks. Nick was 6-10 for 12 points and 11 boards. And Ethan was 4-6 from the field on drives to the rim, and also had 8 assists and a few tremendous passes to the bigs off his drives.
- The Trojans held TCU to 43% from the field and 5-19 from three. The smaller Frogs got ten more shots, mostly because the Trojans missed free throws. TCU only missed two free throws, but one was in the final seconds.
- The game plan was to limit TCUs’ three point attempts, and the defense played well throughout. The Frogs came in scoring the third highest percentage in the nation of their points from three.
- SC had trouble taking advantage of their size. Nick and O did not get as many attempts as expected against a team that played with four guards and one big. For stretches in each half SC also played with four guards to match the Frogs’ quickness, and in the first half that lineup helped extend the lead.
- The Trojans played their most complete 23-24 minutes of the season thru the beginning of the second half. But from there, the offense slowed down, with a lot of standing around and much less ball movement. It may be hard to play well over a full 40 minutes, but there will be games where Troy can’t stop their offensive efficiency for 15+ minutes.
- Big O had several blocks down the stretch. They contributed as much as anything to the win. He has the ability to block shots without fouling and to keep the ball in play.
- SC had only three fouls in the first half, which contributed to the lead at the half. In the second half they put TCU in the bonus with 12 minutes left. In an oddity, Isaiah Mobley drew the Frogs first five fouls in the first half.
For a game in early December, this felt like a “must win” to help build a tournament resume. The two returning seniors (who were both too sick to practice on Wednesday) led the way for most of the game, and their teammates followed. Nick missed some easy shots but also got several offensive rebounds. Jonah played his best game of the season by far, and outplayed TCU’s taller Bane in a head to head matchup.
The Trojans are now 8-2, and have played some of their best basketball in parts of the last two games. Most importantly, the Trojans won, in a game which produced some big positives, and left some things to work on. (Can you say free throws?) The team should feel good about the win, but the staff has work to do to insure that the offense can play at a high level for more than 24 minutes. They will also study the tape to determine why the bigs couldn’t get more shots inside against a smaller opponent. The guards have shot much better in the last two games. As a group, they need to continue this production.
Overall, a good step forward. But Troy will need to continue to improve for conference play. Oregon, Arizona, Colorado and Washington all appear to be good to very good teams. SC opens conference play with a trip to the Washingtons the first week of January.