LOS ANGELES, CA — The USC Trojans paid homage to the late great Kobe Bryant the best way anyone can… by getting a win. Big O, Onyeka Okongwu, comes up Big on D to help the Trojans escape with a 56-52 victory over the Utah Utes Thursday night.
In game that was controlled by the Utes for the most part, the Trojans relied on their Pac-12 leading defense to keep them in the contest, holding the visitors to 32 percent shooting for the game and hoping the offense can make plays.
“When you can’t score yourself, you better defend,” said Trojans coach Andy Enfield. “We’ve done that and I’m very proud of our young men for staying in the game and defending it for 40 minutes.”
The defense was especially crucial in the last meaningful possession. With the Trojans holding a slim 2-point lead, the Utes’ Timmy Allen drove the lane for a layup but was met with an incredible block by Big O to force a jump ball. With the arrow in their favor, the Trojans gained possession with 6.0 left on the clock.
As good as the defense was, you can’t win without scoring baskets. Down by nine points midway through the second half, the Trojans marched on a 15 -2 run to take its first lead of the game. Sophomore guard Elijah Weaver called on the Mamba Mentality as he scored 10 of those points.
“I was just being aggressive,” said Weaver. “I think that’s my new role. People have been talking about coming off the bench and bringing energy. That’s all it was, energy and confidence.”
Both teams donned number 24 with Bryant on the back of their warm-up shirts to honor the late Lakers legend. USC had the words “Fight On Forever” above number 8 on the front side. Prior to the singing of the National Anthem, the Galen Center crowd stood for a moment of silence as 24.8 seconds ticked off the clock.
“We’re at home and today is a special day, we’re playing for Kobe,” said Weaver. “So it was like ‘We’re not losing at home,’ it was in our mind already. Let everybody know we’ve been here before and it’s time to fight back.
Trojans got off to a cold shooting start as they only made 2 of its first 16 shots from the field and were down 16-6 midway through the first half.
They continued to fight on and went on a hot run of shooting where they made 5 of 6 shots and trimmed the deficit to three at 21-18. The visiting Utes held a 29-23 lead at halftime, led by Riley Battin’s eight points, including two from behind the three-point arc. Nick Rakocevic kept the Trojans in the game with 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting.
The game was played dead even through the first 10 minutes of the second half, as both teams scored 11 points on 4 of 14 shooting at one point. Then the Trojans ratcheted up its defensive pressure, forcing five straight misses and a turnover over the next four minutes of play.
Utes baskets by Branden Carslon and Timmy Allen drew the game even at 46 a piece at the 4-minute timeout to set the stage for the showdown at the end. The teams went tit for tat on the scoreboard and were still tied when Carlson went to the free throw line and missed both freebies with 42 seconds on the clock.
Big O caught a pass on the left block, took a hard dribble to the right side for a layup that bounced off the rim. Luckily, by his own recollection, the ball bounced right to Rakocevic for an easy put back to secure the game-winning points. Big O was fouled with six seconds and iced the game by making both free throws.
Rakocevic led the Trojans with 16 points and 12 rebounds. Okongwu also had a double double of 11 points and 11 rebounds. Weaver finished with 14 points.
USC is now 17-4 on the season, 6-2 in Pac-12 play. The face the number 20 ranked Colorado Buffaloes, who just lost to UCLA.