By Rich Ruben
The Trojans hung on to beat LSU 70-68 in a tremendous game in the second half of the Basketball Hall Of Fame Classic at Staples. In the earlier game, undefeated San Diego State clobbered the Pac 12’s Utah Utes 80-52. Lots of comments from players and coaches from both games are below.
The Trojans improved to 10-2 on the season, with only one non-conference game remaining at home Sunday December 29 against Andy Enfield’s former team Florida Gulf Coast. SC trailed most of this game, and got its first lead since the opening minutes during a late 13-2 run. The Trojans led by 7 with just over 3 minutes left, but three late turnovers and a missed front end of a one and one with 3.2 seconds left gave the Tigers one last shot from about 35 feet, but it was blocked by Onyeka Okongwu.
If anyone wondered how the Trojans would play against a good team when Big O did not have a big game, we found out. O had “only” 10 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks. He took only 6 shots from the field, but he had 2 key blocks in the last 49 seconds. And if anyone wondered if the Trojans could come back late in a game against a good opponent, that question was also answered.
LSU’s defensive game plan was to double team when the ball went into the post, leave the Trojan point guards free outside, and try to keep SC on the perimeter. They doubted the young point guards could make shots outside. The strategy worked well, at least in part. The three Trojan bigs combined for only 26 points, far below their average, but Troy got big games from Player of the Game Jonah Matthews, Daniel Utomi and Kyle Sturdivant, and an amazing late stretch from Ethan Anderson.
SC came into the game with the 47th most efficient offense in the country. LSU was better, at number 14. LSU is not a good outside shooting team; they don’t take many threes or contested jumpers. Instead, their big body players drive to the basket and they run their offense off those drives. Their starting forwards are only 6’6”, but they weigh 235 and 240 pounds and are very physical. As the game progressed, SC did a better job of stopping the drives.
On the flip side, the Tigers did a good job in keeping the ball from getting inside to O or Nick, forcing the Trojans to find other ways to score. The shorter Tigers were quick off their feet, and the Trojans’ size did not allow them to dominate the boards In the end, SC did just enough to pull this one out. This game, against a good SEC team on a “neutral” court, will help SC’s resume when tournament selection time rolls around
What We Learned About The Trojans
- SC was the better team in the second half. The Trojans shot 50% from the field and 50% from three after the break, while holding LSU to 37% and 17% in the second half.
- The Trojans were outscored 42-22 in the paint, which would have been hard to imagine before the game. But SC outscored the Tigers 33-9 from three, more than offsetting the disadvantage inside. Although Troy only made 11-31 threes, they made several big threes late in the game.
- Jonah played 35 1/2 minutes, scoring 15 along with 5 boards and 3 assists. He was 3-7 from three, continuing his hot shooting for the fourth straight game.
- Fellow senior Nick Rakocevic also made several big plays. He scored 14, on 5-9 from the field and 2-2 from three. He tied O for the rebounding lead with 9.
- Elijah Weaver had an off night. He played only 15 minutes and was 0-4 from three and 0-5 from the field. When he was on the court, the Trojans scored 10 less than the Tigers. Fortunately, Daniel played the other 25 minutes, and was a +10. He scored 10 points, on 3-7 from the field including 2 made threes, and had six rebounds. Daniel was a major factor in this win. His only negative was his 4 turnovers. A question for Andy and staff is whether Daniel should play more minutes going forward.
- It was obvious the Tigers were not going to guard Ethan on the outside. Left alone, he missed his first 6 shots, some of which were not close. When Kyle Sturdivant came in to play the point, the Tigers stayed with the same strategy. In his best game so far, in 17 minutes Kyle made 3-6 from the field and 2-4 from three. Ethan came back and played most of the second half. He found his shot, making 3-4 including two crucial threes down the stretch, and 3-4 late free throws. He also finished with 6 assists, 3 TOs, and 2 steals. The point guards rather than the post play won this game.
- Although it seemed like the shorter Tigers dominated the boards, the final margin was only 43-40.
- Isaiah Mobley had foul trouble, and played only 11 1/2 minutes scoring only 2 points, but he grabbed 5 rebounds and had a block. He was probably SC’s most aggressive rebounder when he was on the floor.
Post Game Media Session With Andy
- There were twice as many media people present than are typically at a game at Galen.
- LSU has a lot of good 1 on 1 players. The Trojans kept their composure throughout, which allowed them to come back and take a late lead and hold on to win.
- Andy said he appreciated the fan support, which he said was much greater than in prior years at this event. The crowd appeared to me to be maybe 60% as large as the crowd for the first game. SDSU brought a lot of loud fans. The Trojan fans got loud in the last 6-8 minutes when the Trojans made their big run and took the lead.
- SC is going “to run with the young guys.” Andy complimented Kyle for his big first half, and Ethan for his great play down the stretch. He mentioned Ethan’s maturity and determination. As an example, Andy said that Ethan lives in Carson, and drove an hour and a half each day to play for Fairfax for four years.
- Andy brought Jonah and Nick into the “Chick Hearn Media Room” with him, and he complimented them both for their play and leadership.
- The offense was stagnant in the first half. They changed to more dribble handoffs in the second half, and were more successful.
- The Trojans are a much better team than they were a month ago. The PAC 12 is deep this year, and the conference has a lot of good non conference wins and a much better winning percentage.
- They expect to add one or two players in the Spring signing period. Four seniors will leave after this season, and possibly others may leave as well. I’m surprised that they are not looking to sign more players. Only Evan Mobley signed in the fall, but Andy may be thinking of adding transfers (no time to follow up with him on this point). They also have 6’6” shooting guard Noah Baumann red shirting this year. Noah will have two years left to play.
Comments From Nick and Jonah
- I was surprised at how calm they both were. I expected to see more excitement – they came into the media room only about ten minutes after the game ended. They seemed to take the game in stride, which is perhaps a sign of their experience and maturity.
- Nick talked about how the team did a good job of staying together after their two losses, especially after the lop sided loss to Marquette.
- In answer to a question about senior leadership, Jonah said that they both lead by example. The younger players look to them, and he said the freshmen are learning very quickly.
Post Game Media Session with LSU Coach Will Wade
- He thought the Tigers played hard, and that turnovers and late missed free throws were the difference.
- He confirmed that the game plan was to double down low, and not guard Ethan or Kyle outside. He thought the two Trojan freshmen point guards made more threes in this game than in the prior eleven combined. (When he said this, my first thought was that no other opponent left them completely unguarded. Might explain their success).
- He said that SC is well coached and ran some good plays for Jonah late in the game.
- Wade has an attitude about him; a little smirky. When he left, he said that he wished the media in Baton Rouge asked such easy questions.
- Wade has also had some recent controversy. He was suspended last year “indefinitely” before the last regular season game for refusing to meet with school officials over alleged recruiting violations. He was allegedly caught on a wire tap discussing an “offer” he wanted to make to a recruit who played last year for the Tigers. The suspension was lifted after two weeks and he coached the Tigers in the NCAA tournament. Imagine what would have happened in that situation at SC.
San Diego State Slaughters Utah In First Game
Although Utah was picked to finish in the second division of the PAC 12, the Utes had lost only two games coming in, and beat Kentucky earlier in the week. They were never in this game and lost 80-52. It was interesting to see a conference team in person, but Utah did the conference no favors. They made only 31% of their shots and 30% from three, and were outscored 42-10 in the paint.
The Utah big men are freshmen, do not play strong, and are not quick off their feet. The first point by a big was a free throw with 11 minutes left in the game. The first field goal came with 8 1/2 minutes left. They have a 7’4” freshman, but he did not enter the game until 2 1/2 minutes remained, and he is obviously not in the regular rotation.
The one Utah player who did shine was 6’6” sophomore forward Timmy Allen. He scored 16 of their first 27 points, and finished with 21. San Diego State was ranked number 20 coming into this week, and they are a very good and balanced team, especially on defense. But the Utes have issues, and the SC front line should be able to handle the Utah bigs.
San Diego State brought their basketball band and cheerleaders, and probably triple the number of fans that came to see the Trojans. SC’s dance team was present, but not the band. The Aztecs have built a very good basketball following. Maybe the Trojans might learn something from them.
Utah had a few recruits at the game sitting in the front two rows. The coaches talked with them before the game.
Over the years, I have had the impression that Utah coach and former NBA player Larry
Krystkowiak was kind of a jerk. He scowls throughout the game, and argues most calls that go against his team. I was therefore surprised at his post game media session. He was very mild mannered and good humored (hard to do after that game), and answered every question thoughtfully, thoroughly and candidly. He said that their freshmen big men need to develop. He also said they have a lot of freshmen and he expects they will improve as the year goes on, but there will be growing pains. Being able to interact with the Western Coach K gave me a very different insight. I left the room thinking that this guy is probably a great teacher and recruiter.