USC was up big Wednesday night, nearing the final minute against Washington State, and yet Jonah Mathews, walking off the court, looked like the puppy that had gotten into the trash.
His shoulders slumped. He had a sheepish grin. His eyes struggled to meet those of point guard Jordan McLaughlin.
The Trojans’ 87-64 win, which helped stabilize their season after four straight losses put them on the NCAA tournament bubble, had belonged to McLaughlin. He led USC with 16 points. He made 10 assists. And, with about 80 seconds left, he was sitting on nine rebounds — one away from only the second triple-double in USC history.
A final ricochet materialized like a piece of candy at the Academy Awards, the ball floating right toward McLaughlin on the right side of the basket vacated by Washington State players. He reached for it. Suddenly, Mathews streaked in, surged at the ball and came down with it.
“He was at the rim level, so Jordan can’t really jump that high,” Coach Andy Enfield said. “So that was pretty impressive.”
Mathews realized his error almost immediately, and he wore it. Enfield pulled both players afterward. On the bench, Mathews, looking hangdog, shook his head at McLaughlin in apology. McLaughlin also shook his head, accepted congratulations and condolences from teammates and laughed. Mathews was one of two USC players to attend the postgame news conference. The other was McLaughlin
“I’m never gonna stop hearing the end of that,” Mathews said.
As he walked into the locker room, Mathews said, assistant coach Tony Bland “was calling me a hater. Everybody’s calling me a hater. I just took the rebound, trying to get the ball.”
He turned to McLaughlin.
“My fault, man,” he said.
“Nah, it’s all good,” McLaughlin laughed.
“We talked in the locker room,” McLaughlin explained. “Everything’s good. It’s all good.”
USC’s only competition Wednesday was among its own players, fighting for statistics. Washington State (13-16, 6-11 in the Pac-12 Conference) provided little resistance. USC (22-8, 9-8) led by nine points by the first media timeout. The gulf only grew. The Trojans’ largest lead was 29. The closest the Cougars came to the lead was a 2-2 tie, 62 seconds into the contest.
USC guard Aaron Shaqquan, center, battles a trio of Washington State players for a rebound during the first half.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC forward Charles Buggs dunks the ball during the game against Washington State.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC Coach Andy Enfield watches play during the game against Washington State.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC guard De’Anthony Melton, left, battles Washington State forward Josh Hawkinson.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC guard De’Anthony Melton, center, battles for a rebound against Washington State guard Malachi Flynn during the first half.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Washington State guard Charles Callison leaps over USC guard Jonah Mathews, who faked going up for a shot, during the first half.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC Coach Andy Enfield argues a call with a referee during the game against Washington State.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC guard Elijah Stewart dunks the ball as Washington State guard Charles Callison can only watch during the second half.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
USC guard Bennie Boatwright drives to the basket against Washington State guards Charles Callison, middle, and Ike Iroegbuin during the second half.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
McLaughlin orchestrated USC’s best ball movement of the season, scattering Washington State’s defense as if the Cougars were playing a bad game of monkey in the middle. USC assisted on 25 of its 35 field goals.
“They might’ve had a good shot, but we passed it up for a greater shot,” McLaughlin said.
“Jordan,” Enfield said, “is a good player, if you didn’t notice. He’s pretty special, especially when he plays with this amount of confidence.”
Enfield added, “What a great game.”
USC deployed Mathews in a three-quarter-court press, and he harassed the Cougars into hasty decisions. USC made nine steals and seven blocks. At one point in the first half, Chimezie Metu blocked Josh Hawkinson so thoroughly that the ball never left Metu’s hand. He swatted at the ball, kept it gripped in his palm, then threw an outlet pass.
Metu finished just shy of a double-double, with 15 points and nine rebounds.
Mathews scored 12 points and Bennie Boatwright scored 14. Shaqquan Aaron scored eight. Enfield chose to start Aaron over Elijah Stewart, who’d started all 29 games until Wednesday. Enfield said it was a “coach’s decision,” and declined to say whether it was disciplinary.
The blowout offered welcome relief for USC, which had seemed securely in the NCAA tournament field until its skid landed it on shaky ground. The last loss was the most painful, a late collapse against Arizona State that “devastated” USC, Mathews said.
“I think there’s a lot more urgency,” Mathews said. “We’re on the bubble, so that clicked with us.”
USC still must win its final regular-season game against Washington, and probably must avoid a first-round exit in the Pac-12 tournament, to feel safely in.
“Sure, we feel the pressure,” Enfield said. “They were focused. They know what’s at stake.”
He said USC must now “come out knowing that every possession and every game means something right now.”
Before the game, Enfield said he told his players that they should view the last two regular-season games as if the season were on the line.
“Now,” McLaughlin said, “we have a one-game season.”
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand