LOS ANGELES – Dealing with injuries, grief, and a virus, the USC Trojans fight on in a huge 57-48 victory over Pac-12 foes Arizona Wildcats Thursday night at the Galen Center.
Playing for their NCAA tournament lives, Andy Enfield’s team had to call on its defense to pull out the win. The Wildcats were held to 28 percent shooting from the field. The 48 points by Arizona is their lowest scoring output of the season.
“We tried to challenge everything,” said coach Enfield. “Coach Hart had a great game plan. We came up with some different ideas and we just executed defensively as best as we could and challenged to try to make it tough for everything they got.
“I thought we did a really good job of taking their inside away and we challenged every three. To hold their guards to 5-of-32 is just a credit to our players.
According to many bracket prognostications, the Trojans were sitting on the 12 seed line and slated for a play-in game entering Thursday’s contest. Knowing his team was inside the NCAA tournament bubble, senior guard Jonah Matthews led the Trojans in scoring with 14 points while playing with a do or die attitude.
“It’s do or die, I don’t have another year,” said Mathews. “Every rebound, every shot, everything matters. It’s crunch time before March Madness.”
Mathews, like most players in this game, got off to a slow start, which coach Enfield attributed to a virus some members of the team was afflicted with on its Rocky Mountain trip last week but had to play through it as his team needed him.
“They take teams that win, said Mathews. “If we win, we’re in. We can’t afford to drop any game… We have fight in us. No one feels sorry for us. This team is resilient and fights.”
Onyeka “Big O” Okongwu had his 11th double double of year with 11 points and 10 rebounds. In an ugly first half, Big O was the one bright spot as he heaved a three quarters court shot as the buzzer sounded and set off a loud cheer from the crowd. It was his first made three pointer of his collegiate career.
“I just saw that Nico [Wildcat guard Nico Mannion] missed the shot,” said Okongwu. “I always work on the shot after practice so I just took a chance. Got fouled but no call and it still went in anyways.”
That shot turned out to be huge because it gave the Trojans their largest lead of the game, to that point at 26-21, which they never relinquished. Arizona jumped out to a fast 9-2 lead in the contest but both teams threw up bricks in a back and forth first half. Okongwu led the Trojans with seven rebounds in the first half to go along with five points.
The Trojans featured balanced scoring with the six players in the rotation who played significant minutes all scoring at least seven points. A very ill Nick Rakocevic only logged 11 minutes.
The Trojans improve to 20-9 on the season, 16-1 when holding opponents under 70 points, and 3-0 holding foes under 49 points. Their next game will be in the Galen Center against Arizona State on Saturday, then they close the season the following Saturday as they host the rival Bruins.