Senior forward Bennie Boatwright drilled a cold-blooded 3-pointer with 11 seconds remaining to ice the Sun Devils and secure a 69-67 home victory for the Trojans Saturday night.
Senior point guard Derryck Thornton and junior guard Jonah Mathews played roles just as pivotal as that of Boatwright as the upperclassmen freed up just enough space for “Bennie Buckets” to transform into “Bennie Big Shot” and push the Trojans to 5-2 in Pac-12 play.
“Derryck did a great job bringing his man down and Jonah said he was going to set one for me,” Boatwright said after leading the Trojans with 17 points. “They got me open. I got a good look at it, and I was able to knock it down.”
Boatwright’s game-winning 3-pointer will rightfully receive most of the praise, but it was the Trojans’ stellar team defense that helped them gut out a tough conference win. Since entering conference play, USC has held four of its last seven opponents below 70 points and has only allowed a single opponent to shoot 50 percent from the floor.
“We’ve been playing great defense for a month … our team has progressively gotten better this year on both sides of the ball,” head coach Andy Enfield said.
That improvement was on full display as the stifling defense held Arizona State to just 30 percent shooting on the night and less than 20 made field goals.
On the other side of the court, Boatwright dominated in the low post with fadeaways out of double teams and powerful finishes when operating one-on-one. Senior guard Shaqquan Aaron had his best shooting performance of conference play, hitting three critical 3-pointers and finishing with 13 points.
“[Aaron] played a great game,” Enfield said. “He was in the right spots and challenged shots. He’s a very smart player.”
As a whole, the Trojans seemed mentally prepared, overcoming a tough Arizona State team and a rough night of whistles.
With 18 free throw attempts on the night, the Trojans finished with seven fewer shots from the charity stripe than ASU and found themselves debating calls for most of the game. The calls also managed to hinder some of the most pivotal pieces on the Trojan roster.
Foul trouble limited junior forward Nick Rakocevic to just 25 minutes of play, yet he still managed to leave his mark on the game, totaling 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting and grabbing nine total rebounds.
On the other hand, the limited playing time proved too little for freshman guard Kevin Porter Jr. to gain enough momentum and leave a lasting impression on the game. Porter played just nine minutes after picking up three fouls in the first half, shooting 0-for-4 from the field and turning the ball over three times.
Nevertheless, the Trojans banded together to scrape out an important victory.
“It was a great team win and very important for the Pac-12 race,” Enfield said.
USC now sits at No. 2 in the Pac-12 standings and will face the conference-leading Washington Huskies at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Alaska Airlines Arena.