Behind a strong performance from junior guard Jordan McLaughlin, the men’s basketball team defeated Washington 74-58 on Saturday to wrap up their regular season.
The Huskies entered the Galen Center without their multi-dimensional point guard in freshman Markelle Fultz, the Pac-12 scoring leader and projected No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. Nevertheless, the Huskies roared early, running their offense through sophomore Noah Dickerson who scored 15 of Washington’s 33 first half points.
They leapt to an early 10-point lead before McLaughlin’s play on both sides of the court woke the Trojans from sleep mode en route to a 39-33 halftime lead. While the second half wasn’t always pretty, the Trojans never relinquished their lead to win by a final score of 74-58.
McLaughlin capped off his greatest week of the season with a performance of 22 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds and 4 steals. He thinks he is peaking now.
“It’s March. You’ve got to play your best basketball. The higher the stakes, the better I perform, I feel,” McLaughlin said.
With a stagnant offense out of the gates, McLaughlin hit two big threes and made a couple key passes to get sophomore forward Chimezie Metu involved in the game. Then, with 2:21 seconds left in the game, McLaughlin connected with Metu once more for a fierceful slam that rattled the basket and killed the Huskies’ energy.
“Chimezie is a great weapon for our team, especially with me running the point off a pick-and-roll,” McLaughlin said. “All you have to do is throw the ball up by the rim, and he’ll go get it. He may not finish it, but he’ll bring it back down. He’s a great passer, too. And in open space, he can handle, pass it and shoot better than he did last year.”
After Metu’s emphatic slam gave the Trojans a 67-55 lead, the team never let go of their double-digit margin. Thus, head coach Andy Enfield got to summon his two seniors, Charles Buggs and Shamer Dillon, to action.
Buggs had already played nine minutes in the first half and compiled two electric highlights – a breakaway one-handed jam and a corner three. Dhillon didn’t break a sweat before McLaughlin found him in the corner for an open 3-pointer. he crowd swelled for him, a fan favorite, who had received a standing ovation before tip-off.
“Everyday at shootaround, I practice that shot,” Dhillon said. “My teammates know that’s my shot, so when I got the ball I knew it was going in no questions asked.”
“I’m just glad there wasn’t a hand in his face,” Enfield said. “What a great shot.”
USC won despite Buggs and Dhillon making half of the team’s four 3-point shots in 14 attempts (28.6 percent). The Trojans missed freshman sharpshooter Jonah Mathews, who sat out with concussion-like symptoms after taking a knee to the back of the head in practice. He is day-to-day but should be cleared to play by Wednesday’s first-round Pac-12 Tournament game.
USC also won despite a weak showing by co-captain Bennie Boatwright. The sophomore forward eventually fouled out after only 20 minutes of action. He tallied nine points, two rebounds, one assist and two turnovers. Chimezie Metu also battled foul trouble, but he navigated through the ups and downs to carve a fine performance: 17 points (7-for-11), four rebounds, and three blocks.
Freshman Nick Rakocevic played 21 minutes to fill the gaps left by Boatwright and Metu. Like McLaughlin, he is playing his best in March. He finished with 10 points and eight rebounds. Enfield said he stepped up tonight in a must-win situation like Melton and Mathews have done throughout the year.
“It’s been exciting to watch the development of our young players,” he said. “Our team has excelled with 23 wins. I don’t think anyone predicted this especially with two kids leaving early, only four returning players, six who had never played in our system, and our leading scorer, Boatwright, missing half of Pac-12 play.”
Enfield believes the freshmen have exceeded expectations and played far more meaningful minutes than anyone would have anticipated when they signed with USC last fall.
Twenty-three regular season wins marks the highest win-mark in a decade for USC. The 2006-2007 team also had 23 regular season wins. That team garnered a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament and achieved a birth to the Sweet Sixteen.
This team is on the bubble, still, but is not concerned about seeding. Team members say that they are taking March one game at a time. They needed to win on Saturday, and they will need to defend their win against Washington on Wednesday in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.
Coach Enfield doesn’t know if it’s an advantage or disadvantage to play Washington so soon.
“That’s who we have to play, and that’s who we’re gonna play,” he said. “Everyone says it’s hard to beat a team three times in a season, but we did that last year versus UCLA.”
Should Fultz and Mathews return to action, the game may look very different, anyhow.