Derryck Thornton, the Trojans’ starter all season, had come off the bench because of coach Andy Enfield’s decision to start Kevin Porter Jr. to get his four best shooters on the floor against UCLA’s zone defense. Once Thornton entered, he played one of his worst games of the year. At one point, in the midst of a back-and-forth battle, a startling statistic emerged: During the minutes Thornton was on the floor, USC trailed UCLA by 27 points. He would finish the game with a plus-minus of minus-23.
Enfield had no choice but to look to freshman point guard Elijah Weaver, particularly after Porter left the game with an ankle sprain and was unable to return. That wasn’t going well either, as Enfield counted four straight defensive mistakes by Weaver before pulling him out midway through the second half.
But, when pressed to choose between Thornton and Weaver for USC’s third perimeter spot alongside Jonah Mathews and Shaqquan Aaron, Enfield still opted for Weaver.
“We had a little talk,” Enfield said. “We just said, ‘Hey, get back in there and help us.’ ”
Weaver subbed back in for his biggest minutes of the season. The four-star recruit from Cocoa, Fla., had been held back most of the year by issues with his ankle, missing valuable time to learn how to run the team, but his time came to make an impact late in a heated rivalry game.
Weaver played the last seven minutes of the second half, helping USC force overtime with solid defense on Jaylen Hands’ attempted game-winner in regulation and then diving for the loose ball and calling timeout to give USC a chance to win it. On the Trojans’ possession, Weaver waited too long to get them moving into the action Enfield wanted, and Bennie Boatwright had to rush a game-winning three, which clanged off the backboard.
Weaver played the whole overtime period, too. His night was up and down, but he finished with eight points, seven assists and no turnovers in 24 minutes.
“I thought he grew up a little bit tonight,” Enfield said.
USC’s season has gone so poorly compared with expectations — the Trojans enter Thursday night’s game at Utah with a record of 15-14 overall and 8-8 in the Pac-12 — that it has been natural for the program’s observers to look ahead to the arrival of next year’s highly touted freshman class.
Porter, this year’s dynamic freshman who was supposed to star for the Trojans, has struggled with a lingering quad injury and had an off-the-court issue set him back. He may be projected to be a first-round pick in June’s NBA draft, but he has not been a star for USC.
Weaver hasn’t had a fair chance to show the player he can be, and neither has freshman forward J’Raan Brooks.
But, like Weaver, Brooks took advantage of his minutes against UCLA. With Nick Rakocevic battling foul trouble, Brooks stepped in and scored 11 points.
Porter, who is a game-time decision for Utah, will be gone next season. But Enfield will need Weaver and Brooks to develop, regardless of how good next year’s freshmen are.
“J’Raan Brooks has been through a tough transition,” Mathews said, “playing behind one of the best players in the country [Boatwright], and he’s kept his head the whole time. He came in and gave us a big lift, balled out. Elijah Weaver came in, was poised, hit big shots. That’s what we needed. We’re super proud of our freshmen.”
Despite another brutal loss in a close game, the Trojans left Pauley feeling upbeat about what they could do this week at Utah and Colorado and in next week’s Pac-12 tournament thanks in part to the effort of Weaver and Brooks.
“Most definitely,” Boatwright said. “We try to look at the positive things that we did to try to build momentum. If you look at the negative, you’re going to sulk. If you look at the positive, we’re going to keep getting better and go out and perform.”
UP NEXT: at Utah
When: Thursday, 7 p.m. PST.
Where: Jon M. Huntsman Center.
On the air: TV, FS1; Radio, 710.
Update: The Utes (15-13 and 9-7 in the Pac-12) are in a three-way tie for third place in the league standings with two all-important Pac-12 tournament first-round byes up for grabs. The Trojans are one game back of Utah in a three-way tie for fifth place and could vault themselves back into the mix for a bye with a win in Salt Lake City. Utah won the first meeting at Galen Center 77-70.