The tenuous tournament fates of two desperate crosstown rivals hung in the balance Saturday afternoon, as USC coach Andy Enfield pulled his senior captain aside with nine seconds remaining against UCLA.
The teams, separated by just a dozen miles of freeway, had taken entirely different paths to this make-or-break moment, with a capacity crowd at Galen Center roaring and a tension in the air. So many twists and turns had led them here. Now, with a Pac-12 title at stake for UCLA and the postseason prospects of both possibly on the line, USC’s coach turned to Jonah Mathews and told him to decide where it all went from here.
“I’m putting the ball in your hands,” Enfield told the 6-foot-3 guard during a timeout, “and we’re going to live or die.”
Mathews had dreamed of this very moment as he lay awake the night before, fantasizing of a final, extraordinary shot to end his four years at USC. He’d never hit a game-winner before.
But as Onyeka Okongwu set a high ball screen and UCLA switched, as Mathews jabbed forward, then stepped back, he knew as it left his fingertips.
“We gonna live today,” Matthews said with a smile, shortly after his three-point shot with one second left swished and a 54-52 win over UCLA was secured, along with a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament. And with Saturday’s buzzer-beating victory, the Trojans should be considered safely in the NCAA tournament field.
As Matthews sunk that final shot, his wrist still suspended well after it landed, the sudden desperation of the Bruins’ tournament future also came into focus. A Bruins win would’ve been an exclamation point on an extraordinary turnaround, an 8-9 start somehow transformed into a shared Pac-12 title.
Mick Cronin knew the fate of that magical run now rested in Mathews’ hands. He had come alive in the second half, scoring 15 of his game-high 19 points after the break. So the UCLA coach put his most athletic defender, Jules Bernard, on Mathews and expected the screen.
It was no use. “The guy just made a big-time shot,” Cronin said.
There was little solace for UCLA (19-12, 12-6 Pac-12), which now presumably must win games in the Pac-12 tournament to secure its place in the NCAA tournament. The Bruins hadn’t shot this poorly (31%) all season, or lost a game in which they held an opponent to fewer than 74 points.
Over their seven-game win streak, the Bruins had forgotten what it was like to lose. They had always clawed their way back, piling up five second-half comebacks over that stretch. They were nine seconds from another after Cody Riley gave them a one-point lead with two free throws.
“Seven games in a row,” forward Chris Smith said. “I don’t recall how this feels. Yeah, I don’t like it.”
The mood was far different in the USC locker room, where water bottles were emptied in a frenzied celebration. The Trojans (22-9, 11-7) ultimately finished behind the Bruins in the Pac-12 race, but for now, that hardly mattered.
“We’re going into the tournament with supreme confidence,” Mathews said.
That’s certainly the case for Mathews, who led the Trojans in scoring in each of their last three games, all of which came against teams that were ahead of them in the conference.
A bye in the Pac-12 tournament should help matters as well. USC opens conference tournament play Thursday against the winner between Arizona and Washington. UCLA will play the winner between Stanford and Cal.
“We believe we can go in and compete next week,” Enfield said. “Our offense is extremely streaky for a variety of reasons. But we have 22 wins because of our defense.”
That defense was on full display Saturday, as USC patrolled the paint, limiting UCLA to 10 made shots inside the arc.
“We really put ourselves in a hole offensively,” Cronin said.
Before halftime, USC wasn’t doing much better. The Trojans shot just 31% in the first half, while UCLA stifled their star freshman, Okongwu.
Okongwu, who scored a season-low four points in the first meeting between the teams, barely touched the ball for the game’s first 11 minutes, as the Bruins played him tough in the post.
But Okongwu resolved to be more aggressive and wound up scoring 12 of 15 USC points spanning the first and second halves. USC followed his lead, shooting 57% after halftime. Okongwu finished with 16 points.
Still, UCLA hung around until the bitter end, as Mathews missed two free throws that might have iced the game. As the senior missed the first, he laughed, as if he knew how it all would end.
“Jonah missed those free throws, I think, on purpose to set up that last shot,” Enfield joked.
Riley, who led UCLA with 13 points, made five of six free throws, including the two that gave the Bruins a 52-51 lead. Then, with just seconds remaining, Mathews lifted up for a shot he’ll never forget.
“This is a dagger in their heart,” Mathews said. “I know it’s going to stick with them forever. It’s going to stick with me forever too. To do it in a packed house, last game in Galen — it’s something you can’t even dream of.”