In a game where seniors guard Jonah Mathews and forward Nick Rakocevic recorded their 1,000th career points in Trojan uniforms, the USC men’s basketball team pulled away late for a 84-66 win to continue its perfect start to the season.
It was a battle of unbeaten teams at Galen Center Tuesday night as the 2-0 Trojans went up against 3-0 South Dakota State. USC was coming off early-season wins against Florida A&M and Portland thanks to a number of talented freshmen, while the Jackrabbits tallied victories over UT Rio Grande Valley, Peru State and CSU Bakersfield.
The second half was a back-and-forth battle between the two teams. But after a 3-pointer from Jackrabbits senior guard Brandon Key made it a 1-point game with 15:31 left, the Trojans went on to score 12 consecutive points and never looked back.
“I’ve been through a lot of tight games during my four years here, so it wasn’t really stressful,” said Mathews said of the Jackrabbits’ comeback effort. “We just had to come together, get stops, make good plays. And we happened to do that down the stretch. Slowing it down, executing plays, [getting] steals, just shutting the game out.”
Both teams got off to a slow start in the first half. USC finished the first half shooting 35% from the field, going 14-for-40 and 4-for-17 from the arc. The Jackrabbits, meanwhile, shot 40% from the field, and 3-of-12 from behind the 3-point line.
It didn’t take long for USC to build a lead in the first half, as it jumped out to a quick 13-point advantage. However, it didn’t last long, as the Jackrabbits went on a 14-8 run to enter halftime down by only 7 points.
Rakocevic had a dominant first half, matching his season scoring total coming in with 15 points and recording 10 rebounds. Junior forward Douglas Wilson and freshman guard/forward David Wingett both scored 8 points in the first half for SDSU.
USC had a much better second half, shooting 46% and grabbing 18 rebounds. Although it was once a close game, USC finished the contest without ever giving up the lead.
The difference in the game came down to turnovers. The Trojans took advantage of the Jackrabbits’ 18 turnovers, turning them into 13 points. In addition, SDSU also committed 26 personal fouls compared to USC’s 15.
The second half included two of the more memorable plays in recent USC history, as Mathews and Rakocevic scored their 1,000th career points. Mathews, who has played 105 career games as a Trojan, came into the Tuesday’s night game with 995 points. Rakocevic entered his 108th career game 20 points away from the milestone.
“To have two guys like Jonah and Nick, who came in together, who scored their 1,000th point on the same evening is pretty cool,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “So we’re excited for them, they have a chance to do something special this year together, to be leaders of the team.”
Rakocevic continued his hot first half, scoring 12 points and pulling down six rebounds in the second. He finished with a team high 27 points and 16 rebounds while adding five steals.
Rakocevic said although he had a hot hand, his teammates allowed him to utilize his size against a smaller South Dakota State team.
“My teammates did a good job of getting me the ball and just getting me in good positions to score the ball, and I was just taking advantage of the size I had over them,” Rakocevic said. “My teammates played a big factor in that and just getting me in that position to score easy points.”
The 3-0 start is a promising sign for a team that missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year last season.
The Trojans will now travel to Nevada for their first away game of the season. They take on the Wolf Pack in an 8 p.m. tilt Saturday.