Men’s basketball tops Utah after tribute to Kobe Bryant

Senior forward Nick Rakocevic hit a game-winner with 20 seconds left against Utah at Galen Center Friday. Rakocevic picked up an impressive 16 points and 15 rebounds in the win, leading both teams. (James Wolfe | Daily Trojan)

After an extremely difficult week for the basketball community, USC honored NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s legacy in Los Angeles with a 56-52 win over Utah Thursday at Galen Center.

It was the team’s first game since the tragic passing of Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter accident Sunday.

Players and students alike donned Kobe shirts as the arena engaged in a 24.8-second moment of silence to honor the nine lives lost.

“I always respected Kobe’s game,” senior forward Nick Rakocevic said. “The biggest thing was everything he did off the court … Tonight was for him. I’m glad we won for him.”

The Trojans struggled to get going, missing shot after shot in the first half. Senior guard Jonah Mathews, who averaged 16.6 points through the previous three games, was held scoreless on five attempts. The team consistently misfired from 3-point range, going 1-for-8 in the half.

Despite USC’s offensive woes, the team kept itself within striking distance largely thanks to Rakocevic, who had 12 points and five boards through the first 20 minutes. The big man finished with 16 points and 15 rebounds, marking his seventh double-double this season.

“At the beginning of the game, when I noticed we were flat and we came off to a rough start, I thought, ‘I gotta get things going for my team,’” Rakocevic said. “So I feel like right after I hit the first three, it just kind of opened up my game a little bit more.”

The teams played different styles of offense throughout the night. The Utes relied on their starters for a collective effort — four starters scored 10-plus points, while their bench contributed just 2.

For the Trojans, it was sophomore guard Elijah Weaver’s play off the bench that made a difference in the second half. Weaver had 10 points after halftime, including two clutch 3-pointers that brought the energy up in Galen Center.

“Just be aggressive,” Weaver said of his mindset entering the game. “I think that’s my new role. We’ve been talking about sixth-man stuff, just coming off the bench and bringing energy. That’s all it was, just energy and confidence.”

Many of USC’s recent games have gone down to the wire, and this outing was no different. Utah had the ball down 2 points with 20 seconds to go, and it looked like the game could see overtime.

Sophomore guard Elijah Weaver blows by a Utah defender on his way to the basket. Weaver finished with 14 points, the only bench player to score for USC. (James Wolfe | Daily Trojan)

However, freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu — who had been fairly silent with just 8 points from the field — blocked a potential game-tying shot with six seconds left, drew a foul and nailed both free throws to seal the deal for USC.

The Trojans’ defense frustrated Utah’s shooters, who shot just 18-for-55 on the night.

“It’s a tough one to swallow for sure,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said of the loss. “We didn’t make enough shots.”

USC head coach Andy Enfield said he is pleased with the way his team has played defense against tough opponents, allowing them to win tight battles.

“We’ve got a lot of close games,” Enfield said. “Those are all really good basketball teams, and we’re 4-1 in those games. It’s a credit to our players — we defend and we get some stops.”

With the win, USC moves to 17-4, already surpassing its 16 total wins last season. The Trojans also boast a 6-2 record in conference play, putting them at second in the Pac-12 behind Oregon. 

The team will take on No. 4 Colorado Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Galen Center. The Buffaloes will look to get back on track after a Thursday upset loss at UCLA.