Men’s basketball triumphs over Washington at Galen Center

Senior forward Nick Rakocevic nearly registered a double-double Thursday night with 19 points and 9 rebounds. (James Wolfe | Daily Trojan)

USC returned to Galen Center Thursday and left with a 62-56 win against Pac-12 foe Washington. The victory broke the Trojans’ three game losing streak and improved their conference record to 7-5.

The game represented a stark contrast to USC’s 72-40 blowout loss to Washington in January: USC limited the Huskies to a 35% shooting percentage Thursday. 

“Great win for our team,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said after the game. “It was a good battle defensively … We had eight guys show up tonight and really compete.”

The first 20 minutes of the game acted as an adjustment period for a USC offense missing star freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu, who was sidelined with a concussion. The Trojans went 9-33 from the field during the half and allowed the Huskies to gain a 5-point lead on the heels of a standout performance from freshman forward Jaden McDaniels.

By the end of the half, McDaniels had already bested his 12-point- per-game average with 14. The guard finished with a season-best 19 points. 

The Huskies ran a tough zone defense, but it didn’t make the paint impenetrable. Once the Trojans got in the lane, it was just a matter of finishing their shots. Unfortunately for USC, their forwards proved unable to do so for much of the half. Senior forward Nick Rakocevic entered the break with only 6 points alongside freshman forward Isaiah Mobley’s 5.

But the Trojans’ offensive energy dramatically improved in the second half. USC scored 9 unanswered points to start the half and reclaimed a 34-30 lead within just three minutes.

USC’s shooting prowess eventually began to wear Washington down. After freshman guard Ethan Anderson went out with a hyperextended knee four minutes into the second half, senior guard Jonah Mathews got hot, sinking three 3-pointers and finishing the game with 16 points.

But Rakocevic was the star of the second half turnaround. He poured in 14 points in the final 20 minutes, giving him a team-best 19 on the night to go along with nine rebounds in Okongwu’s absence. 

The scoring explosion was coupled with a defensive surge that allowed USC to win the turnover battle, forcing Washington to cough the ball up 11 times. McDaniels didn’t see nearly as many easy buckets in the second half while teammate freshman forward Isaiah Stewart was limited to just 4 points in the paint.

Stewart was guarded by Rakocevic, freshman forward Max Agbonkpolo and Mobley. Agbonkpolo, whose minutes have been limited by Okongwu’s dominant presence on the court, finished with a season-best six rebounds that contributed to a team total of 45. 

At halftime, USC alum and current San Antonio Spur DeMar DeRozan was honored by having his No. 10 jersey retired. The four-time NBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist led the Trojans in the 2008-09 season to a Pac-10 title. DeRozan attended the game alongside his family and former teammates.

“These are the moments we should all be able to enjoy and express and feel the love and be with the ones you love and care about,” DeRozan told the audience before the banner reveal. “I appreciate everyone here, I appreciate USC for honoring me with this.”

To keep their momentum going against Washington State this weekend, the Trojans will have to continue protecting the ball and rely on their defensive ability to shut opponents down.

USC finds itself tied at fifth place in the Pac-12 with a March Madness berth still up in the air.

“It’s getting real, but you just have to stay focused,” Mathews said. “It’s all going to come together. We got to keep on winning.”

The Trojans will take on Washington State at Galen Center Saturday. Tipoff is at 5 p.m.