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Column: USC senior Jonah Mathews’ dream comes true with some March magic

Jonah Mathews (2) is swarmed by Isaiah Mobley (15) and other USC teammates after his game-winning three-pointer March 7, 2020.
Senior guard Jonah Mathews (2) is swarmed by Isaiah Mobley (15) and other USC teammates after his game-winning three-pointer Saturday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

It was four years boiled into one second.

It was a senior in the final tick of his final home game with the ball in hands and his team trailing its rivals by one.

It was a college career boiled into one shot.

“I was like, I’ve got to make this. ... I’m going to make this,” USC’s Jonah Mathews said.

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How did he know? What gave him such belief? How does it happen that one young man can casually lift the heaviest of burdens into the sky and watch it fall through a net and change his world?

“I dreamed of it last night,” he said.

It was March at its maddest. It was college basketball at its finest. It was instant greatness born of a childlike fantasy.

“I was thinking like to myself going to bed, just what if ... what if I was going to end it this way,” Mathews said. “I guess if you dream it, it can happen.”

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With one second remaining Saturday afternoon at Galen Center, shortly after setting the school’s career three-point record, a couple of hours after being honored in Senior Day ceremonies, Mathews threw up a last-gasp three-point attempt in hopes of beating UCLA.

Then, oh my goodness, it happened. Swish happened. Breathtaking happened. Teammates and fans rushing the floor happened. A roar perhaps unmatched in the history of Galen Center happened.

Mathews sank the trey, the scoreboard blinked 54-52, he turned and walked triumphantly across the gym floor, his arm locked in his shooting pose, his dream fulfilled, and all hell breaking loose happened.

“He’s going to remember that shot for the rest of his life, as the rest of us will,” USC coach Andy Enfield said.

“The rest of us” includes UCLA, that darling Bruins team that had overachieved into seven straight victories and a foot into the NCAA tournament. That swish closed that door a bit, and the Bruins (19-12) will now probably have to play well in next week’s Pac-12 Tournament to clinch a spot.

“This is a dagger in their heart,” Mathews said of the Bruins. “I know it’s going to stick with them forever. ... It’s going to stick with me forever too.”

Meanwhile, it was a shot that will send the Trojans (22-9) soaring into the NCAA tournament no matter what happens next week. They end the regular season with consecutive victories over Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA and begin the postseason with all the ingredients for a strong March run. They have great senior guard leadership in Mathews, who scored 19 against UCLA, and a strong inside presence with Onyeka Okongwu and Nick Rakocevic, who combined for 22 points and 13 rebounds.

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While Enfield has curated the winningest five-year stretch in USC basketball history with 109 victories, only twice in the previous four years has he taken them to the tournament, never advancing past the second round. Maybe Mathews’ shot is a sign that this spring will be different.

USC athletic director Mike Bohn congratulates guard Jonah Mathews during a Senior Day recognition ceremony before Saturday’s game.
USC athletic director Mike Bohn congratulates guard Jonah Mathews during a Senior Day recognition ceremony before Saturday’s game.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“We’ve been building since we beat Arizona. ... Our confidences level is ultra-high. We’re going into the tournament with supreme confidence,” Mathews said. “With the bigs playing as they’re playing, with the guards playing with such confidence, we’re going to be hard to beat on a neutral floor.”

What happened Saturday is the sort of March magic that can last for weeks. The way it happened fuels the sort of confidence that can keep you dancing for several rounds.

“I really haven’t had time to sit and think about it and reflect, yet, but when I do, I think I’ll for sure just let it all [out] with tears and be emotional about it,” Mathews said.

That emotion was initially one of frustration. With 1:41 remaining and USC holding a three-point lead in a brutal defensive struggle, Mathews had a chance to make things easier at the free-throw line.

He missed both shots, grinning after the first one, not so much after the second one.

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“I’m a shooter. I just go, I miss seven in a row, next seven going in. ... That’s how you got to think,” he said. “I miss two free throws, OK ... but the three ball, I know it’s going in.”

The quieted crowd did not share his confidence after the Bruins’ Chris Smith closed the gap with a layup before Cody Riley hit two free throws with nine seconds remaining to give UCLA a 52-51 lead.

After the first free throw, Enfield called a timeout, during which the final scene was dramatically staged.

“He’s like, ‘I’m putting the ball in your hands, and we’re gonna live or die,’ “Mathews said. “So I was like, we’re gonna live today. ... We gonna live today. ... We gonna live to celebrate.”

He lived in front of a strong screen by Okongwu that left UCLA center Jalen Hill standing in front of Mathews.

“It was a good ball screen which made them switch. I wanted the switch. I wanted the big guy on me. He couldn’t keep up,” Mathews said. “He had me going to the basket. I stepped back, and then muscle memory just took over.”

It was the sort of memory that could only be found in a 22-year-old college athlete who devoted four years of his life to one program. It is not a one-and-done memory. It is not a leaving-early-for-the-NBA memory.

You know what Mathews thought about after it went in? He thought about those four years.

“The workouts paid off, I guess,” he said. “Thanks coach, for staying up with me, getting up with me in the morning, rebounding for me when I’m bricking and rebounding for me when I’m missing. ... I’m just happy I made it. Thank you for the workouts.”

Mathews and Rakocevic are now the winningest players in USC basketball history with 88 victories each. That sort of record is rarely broken in today’s college basketball world.

That’s the real dream, right? Isn’t that what Kobe Bryant preached? The dream is the journey?

And so, while the USC season marches brilliantly on, the four-year college journey of Jonah Mathews stopped at a place Saturday that will be remembered forever.

“To end it this way, you can’t really ask for anything else,” he said. “I’m just grateful.”

Speaking for those us who still believe in the annual wonder that is college basketball in March, he’s not the only one.


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