They scored the game’s first 13 points and took a 10-point lead to halftime, but that was inconsequential halfway through the second half, when the USC Trojans would have had every excuse to crater under the weight of their misfortune.
Stanford now led by three points, thanks to five three-pointers from freshman marksman Cormac Ryan, and the Trojans, already down to seven scholarship players, were unsure of what they could expect from starter Jonah Mathews, who had just hopped off to the locker room to have his ankle taped.
“That scared us,” center Nick Rakocevic said. “I was shaking.”
Rakocevic has carried the Trojans all season and was on his way to another routine double-double, but he would need help Sunday night to shake off his fear of it all going wrong again.
Just in the nick of time, the guy who was supposed to be USC’s star joined the fray.
Bennie Boatwright scored 17 of his 22 points in the second half, including six during an 11-0 run that proved to be the difference in the Trojans’ gut-check 77-66 victory over the Cardinal at Galen Center.
“Thank God,” Boatwright said, and the senior meant those words exactly as they’re intended.
When Boatwright is himself, as he was this week in leading the Trojans to a 2-0 start in Pac-12 Conference play, his game can feel so smooth and easy. When he is off, which he was for most of nonconference play while recovering from offseason knee surgery, everything he does on the floor can feel forced and awkward.
For those who have seen “Boat” at his best during the last 31/2 years, it has been hard to watch him struggle at those other times. His senior season is suddenly perking up, though. Boatwright’s performance during USC’s current four-game winning streak — he has averaged 19.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game — could be a preview of what’s to come the next two months for a grand finale to his Trojans career.
“Bennie played like an all-league player tonight, like he is,” coach Andy Enfield said. “He had such a calm game, played at a pace where he drove when he had to, posted up, shot the perimeter jump shot, made great passes … he just made the right decision over and over. When they came back, I thought Bennie really took over that part of the game.”
Boatwright, a versatile 6-foot-10 forward, could have declared for the NBA draft after his sophomore season. He came back for his junior year, only to battle a callus infection on his foot and suffer a season-ending knee injury in mid-February. That meant he’d be back for his senior year.
The Trojans, for reasons far beyond Boatwright’s struggles returning to form, have not had the season they imagined at 9-6. Their first two wins over major-conference opponents came Thursday against California and against Stanford, neither of which has a record above .500 now. But USC, playing without the injured Kevin Porter Jr., Elijah Weaver and Charles O’Bannon Jr., banded together and did what had to be done in starting 2-0 in the Pac-12 for the first time since 2010.
Weaver (sprained ankle) is expected back for the Thursday trip to Oregon State, but there’s no telling when Porter and O’Bannon may return.
USC needs Boatwright to stabilize the team until Porter returns and they can see how good they can actually be with a projected NBA lottery pick in their rotation. Boatwright, who said he is 100% healthy, appears up to it.
“From the beginning of my surgeries, I just play these moments over and over again in my head,” Boatwright said. “Now, I’m grateful that it’s here, that I’m playing well. I attribute it to my teammates and my coaches. Even when I was sitting on the sideline, they believed in me.”
Mathews gritted out the final 11 minutes and had 11 points. Derryck Thornton controlled the game late, finishing with 13 points and nine assists. Rakocevic’s energy fueled USC’s 13-0 start and propelled him to 23 points and 10 rebounds. Boatwright spent the first half saddled with two fouls, but that only made the end sweeter.
“The last four games, Bennie has played as well as he’s played in the last two years,” Enfield said. “To have two major surgeries and play like he is now, that’s hard to do. We’ve been patient with him. I know he’s been frustrated. We’re really excited to see what he can do the rest of the Pac-12 season.”