By Rich Ruben
Daniel Utomi turned in his best game as a Trojan on Saturday night, scoring 23 points, grabbing six rebounds and dishing four assists in a 70-51 win against Washington State.
Utomi made 8-15 from the field, including 5-10 threes, committed no turnovers and scored a season-high 23 points. Playing without Onyeka Okongwu and Kyle Sturdivant for the second straight game, the Trojan defense was excellent, limiting the Cougs to 28% from the field and 14% (4-28) on three point attempts.
The game didn’t start on a good note. The Cougars made their first three shots, including two threes, and led 8-0 after a minute and a half, forcing USC head coach Andy Winfield to call a quick timeout. After the game Isaiah Mobley was asked what Andy said during the timeout. While Daniel laughed, Isaiah said that Andy was “a little animated” in the huddle. Before the game, Andy told the team not to let WSU get off to a 10-0 lead. Isaiah added that they only trailed 8-0, so he remained confident. The Trojans scored the next six points, and by halftime led 30-21.
Big O is still in concussion protocol, and is “day to day.” He apparently was injured in Tempe, but I didn’t see an injury occur during the game and the coaching staff has not said when or how he was hurt. Kyle’s father’s funeral is next Saturday, and he will not be with the team until at least the following week.
The Cougs had their own injury issue. Starting guard Isaac Bonton was not in uniform. When asked before the game what was wrong, he pointed to his hip area. Bonton is a streaky scorer and when he is on he can make a very productive duo with the Cougars best player 6’6” sophomore forward CJ Elleby. Elleby had a nice game with 22 points and 13 rebounds, but he took 18 shots to get his 22. No one else did a lot on offense for WSU. Their main inside player, 6’9” Jeff Pollard, made a basket in the first minute and didn’t score again.
Before the game the question on everyone’s mind was whether Nick Rakocevic and Isaiah could rise to the occasion for a second straight game, and the answer turned out to be a resounding yes. Isaiah was 4-8 from the field including one three, and finished with 9 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks. He was the primary defender on Pollard inside, though the Trojans often slipped in a guard to double team Pollard when he got the ball. Nick had an off night shooting, making only 3-11, but he grabbed 10 boards, had 2 assists, 2 blocks and a steal.
Daniel and Isaiah have made a lot of progress over the last month, and both are now very key players. Isaiah went to the floor when he landed on Elijah’s foot with 8 minutes left in the first half and hobbled straight to the locker room. He returned later in the half, and played a very physical game. If he was unable to return, the Trojans would have had only Nick to play inside, and Nick eventually fouled out. Isaiah was noticeably limping after the game. Andy said that Isaiah twisted an ankle and he would likely be pretty sore on Sunday.
The Cougars made two very quick three point shots to start the game, and made another in garbage time with a minute left. For the thirty seven and a half minutes in between, WSU was 1-25 from three. All of the Trojans played very well on the defensive end both outside and in the post.
Ethan made 5-9 shots including 2-2 from three and finished with 12 points and 5 assists. Elijah played very well off the bench, making 4-5 shots and both of his three point attempts for 11 points. And Jonah only took 7 shots for 7 points, but he matched up with Elleby most of the game and made it very tough for the Cougars’ main scorer.
The Trojans made 45% of their shots for the game, but were particularly good in the second half in which they made 15-28 from the field including 7-10 from three. They built the lead to 20 points five and a half minutes into the second half. After the Cougs clawed back to within 10, the Trojans pulled away again and led by as many as 24 late.
The weekend sweep gives the Trojans a 19-7 record on the year, and they are 8-5 in the PAC 12, a game behind the four leaders with 5 games left. After the game Andy said that next week’s mountain trip is the toughest road trip physically because of having to play two games at altitude and traveling from Denver to Salt Lake City in between.
What We Learned About The Trojans
– Andy said that Isaiah played great basketball this weekend, and noted that he did a great job defensively on UW star Isaiah Stewart on Thursday. SC had Isaiah guard Pollard because Nick is quicker and can more readily play outside on a switch.
– He also said that Daniel “is playing at a very high level. He is a tough matchup and is very efficient offensively.” He added that Daniel started off the season struggling but is now playing with a lot of confidence. Daniel said that his problem was “mental early in the season, and (he was) trying to find his role.”
– “The guys played hard and played very good defense,” Andy added. They won the game with their defense. “The goal was to challenge every three, and the perimeter defense was outstanding.”
– Bennie Boatwright was back in the front row for this game, along with Elijah Weaver, Jordan MacLaughlin and D’Anthony Melton. Andy said that it is “awesome to see the NBA players come back,” and added that Bennie is on a two way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies. Andy said “we are bringing in good players who are getting to the NBA,” and he expects some of the current players to play in the NBA. Isaiah added that “it is inspiring for former players to come around.”
– Isaiah is very poised and well spoken in interviews, especially for a freshman. He said that “we want to win the PAC 12, and set us up to get to the Tournament and go on a run in the Tournament.”
– Isaiah added that “with O out of the game, I knew I had to play good defensively and stay out of foul trouble.” He did all of the above.
– Daniel said that when he and Jonah are making shots, it opens the inside for the big men. “I’ve always been able to shoot well, and when I do, it opens things up.” He was asked if he felt good shooting the ball in this game and answered that he wished he had a couple of his misses back.
– Drake London played the last two minutes. He showed his potential by making a corner three, but unfortunately was called for shuffling his feet.
– The one problem area for the Trojans was from the line. They made only 5-11 free throws, and missed a couple front end one and ones.
– Former Trojan Coach George Raveling was at the game, sitting behind the WSU bench. He coached in Pullman for many years before going to Iowa and then to SC. The Cougars recently held a ceremony to honor him at Beasley Coliseum. Football great Anthony Davis was also at the game.
There are only five regular season games left before everyone heads to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament. The Trojans have a difficult remaining schedule. It starts next Thursday in Boulder against the Buffs who soundly beat the Trojans at Galen two weeks ago. Then on to Utah where the Utes are 10-1, losing at home only to Oregon. Next up are the two Arizona schools back in LA. They both squeaked out narrow wins over SC in Arizona last week. And the Trojans close with much improved UCLA at home; the Bruins are tied with the Trojans at 8-5 in league play.
The Trojans will need Big O to return to finish the regular season on a high note. The PAC 12 regular season title is still possible, and so finishing in the top four and getting a first round bye in Las Vegas. The Trojans have been very close in road games at three of the four teams they are chasing, Oregon, ASU and UofA, and they beat the Bruins at Pauley. To be assured of a first round bye might require four more wins, but this league is very balanced and there is no way to predict how the other teams will close out the season. In the three seasons before last year, Andy Enfield’s Trojans won 21, 26, and 24 games, including the post season. This team has an opportunity to challenge those win totals.