A 17-0 second half run anchored by pesky defense and stellar team play pushed the Trojans past UCLA and secured one of the team’s most impressive wins of the season.
“When we share the ball like that, and we’re making shots, we’re really hard to beat,” junior guard Jonah Mathews said. “I would say it’s top two [wins of the season] for sure.”
After over-dribbling and missing the open man led to only 12 team assists in an embarrassing loss to Oregon, the Trojans displayed some of the best on-court chemistry of the season, racking up a season-high 26 assists.
The week in-between games and the change in scenery paid dividends for USC, as a bunch that looked mentally drained in Eugene came out in full attack mode in front of a packed Galen Center. Led by the active play of senior guard Shaqquan Aaron, the Trojans jumped out to a 14-4 lead in the game’s first four minutes.
In recent weeks, Aaron had become a bit of a forgotten piece on offense, but it was clear from the opening tip that the senior was going to leave his mark on this pivotal rivalry game. After just four minutes of play, Aaron had already checked off a three-pointer, two steals, an assist and a block. The hot start proved to be only an appetizer to what would be Aaron’s most aggressive game since mid-December, as he finished with 8 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
“[Aaron] can help us in a variety,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “I thought he played very hard today, and he really was a big key to the game.”
Another big key to the game was the same one that has been opening the doors to success for the Trojans all season — strong upperclassmen play.
A 5-0 run from UCLA to kick off the second half gave the Bruins their lone lead of the game, but back-to-back threes from senior forward Bennie Boatwright sparked a USC onslaught in the last 16 minutes of the game. Boatwright, Mathews and junior forward Nick Rakocevic combined for 38 of the Trojans’ 44 second half points and shot a combined 14-for-22 in the second half burial of UCLA.
With one forward operating from the perimeter and the other dominating the paint, Boatwright and Rakocevic commanded the offensive end in the second half. Bennie “Buckets” lived up to his nickname as he pulled up for three-pointer after three-pointer, going 4-for-5 from deep after halftime. While Boatwright was busy trying to pop the net, Rakocevic was occupied cleaning the glass and making the most of his soft touch around the rim, finishing the game with eight offensive rebounds and 21 points on 9-12 shooting.
“When [Rakocevic] plays within himself and does what he does well, he’s as good as any bigman in our league,” said Enfield.
The wing players and bigs may have the most eye-popping stats, but the Trojan point guard play was just as much of a factor in USC securing the dominating win.
Senior point guard Derryck Thornton was everywhere on the defensive end of the court, stealing the ball four times and even sacrificing his body to draw a charge on 7-foot-1 UCLA freshman center Moses Brown. With a sequence that featured a slashing layup, a steal and an assist, freshman point guard Elijah Weaver showcased flashes of the potential that has Trojan fans and coaches excited for what’s to come.
“We’re very excited about [Weaver’s] future,” Enfield said. “And we were very impressed with him today.”
The win over UCLA has the Trojans within shouting distance of the top of the Pac-12. USC will look to continue to climb the conference ladder when they faceoff against Arizona on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Galen Center.