Despite a first career start for freshman Jonah Mathews, the headline of Sunday’s 82-79 victory over Arizona State revolves around the play of juniors Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart.
McLaughlin played 39 minutes and notched 18 points, including 12 from behind the arc. His eight assists pushed his career total to 368 and moved him past Gus Williams and Daniel Hackett to fifth all-time on the USC career assists leader board.
Stewart led the game in scoring with 29 points. He matched a career-high seven 3-point field goals made, and as a team USC tied a season-high 14 threes made requiring only 27 attempts in their effort.
Only one week ago, the Trojans struggled mightily from three, hitting only three of 19 at Colorado. In the first halves of their last four games, the Trojans shot a measly 6-for-35 from downtown. In tonight’s first half, they quickly reversed that trend with eight successes on 17 attempts.
“You can’t shoot terribly every game,” head coach Andy Enfield said after the win. “Eventually the law of averages works itself out.”
Stewart helped awaken the slumbering Trojan offense with his performance on Sunday night. Entering the game, he averaged less than 10 points-per-game in conference play in part because he had only been attempting nine shots per game. Today, he scored 13 of USC’s first 21 points, and he did not let two early airballs keep him from shooting prolifically. The junior attempted 19 shots and made 11.
With redshirt senior forward Charles Buggs out with a sore left knee, Enfield decided upon a four guard lineup. “Do-it-all” freshman guard De’Anthony Melton and freshman guard Jordan Mathews complemented the backcourt with their all-around play. Melton, although scoreless, had eight assists, six rebounds, two blocks and two steals. Mathews had 14 points including two game-securing threes down the stretch, and also led the team with three steals.
“I pride myself on the defensive end,” Mathews said. “I try to bring my energy to defense first and transition that to offense.”
Fellow freshman Nick Rakocevic also stepped up to the plate tonight. In the face of Buggs’ nagging knee injury and Boatwright’s prolonged absence, Rakocevic has earned a lot of minutes this season. He had several key putbacks at the rim on his way to tallying 11 points and eight rebounds.
“[Rakocevic] gave us great energy,” Enfield said. “It was one of his best games of the season. He’s really matured. Putting him in for the length with Chimeze in the zone helped us stop the dribble penetration. I think that’s why we held the lead.”
Trojan rookies and veterans did their part, but USC’s inexperience almost cost them to game. ASU drew the game very close in the final minutes and nearly took it to overtime. With 1:30 to play, ASU began to press and Mathews could not inbound the ball. He first inbounded it to Metu in traffic, and ASU forced a jump ball. Later, the refs called him for a five-second violation.
“That was a new position for [Mathews],” Enfield said. “It was a learning experience. It’s nice to learn when you win.”
This season Enfield’s squad has been forced to play beyond its years in the wake of losing Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic to the draft, Katin Reinhardt, Darion Clark and Malik Martin to other colleges, and Boatwright and Buggs to injuries. Sports statistician Ken Pomeroy ranks the Trojans as the 327th team in game experience, but their close contests this season have forged both grit and maturity.
“We’ve been inconsistent this year, but we play hard,” Enfield said. “We block shots, we steal the ball. We play small. We play big. We’ve got a special group here.”