After years of sharing the court together, there’s little Onyeka Okongwu can do to surprise Isaiah Mobley. Even when Okongwu nearly makes history in his USC debut.
Okongwu introduced himself to college basketball with 20 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocked shots, tying the school record for blocks in a game, in USC’s season-opening 77-48 win over Florida A&M on Tuesday night at Galen Center. The freshman from Chino Hills flirted with the school’s second-ever triple-double as he was two blocks away from joining Daniel Hackett’s 22-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist game in 2008.
“For him, it’s not new,” said a smiling Mobley, Okongwu’s former Compton Magic teammate.
Okongwu’s push toward history was stymied late when Florida A&M (0-1) avoided driving into the paint against the 6-foot-9 forward and USC coach Andy Enfield sat the freshman with 6:57 left. Okongwu had six blocks in the first half alone, but didn’t sweat missing out on making history.
“That wasn’t my objective for the night,” the freshman said. “I just wanted to go out there, have fun and help my team win. It’s an extreme milestone, but I’m just happy we got the win tonight.”
The two-time Times player of the year effortlessly met opponents at the apex of his jump, extending a lanky arm toward the sky as a nearly impenetrable barrier in front of the rim. He swatted away attempts from Florida A&M’s Kamron Reaves and M.J. Randolph on consecutive shots on the same possession in the first half. He scored on a put-back dunk on the other end.
“He’s relentless,” Enfield said. “When that shot goes up, he’s going to be somewhere and it’s usually towards the basketball. ... He’s got some great skills, but it’s really the mentality. I know a lot of guys that are just as athletic as Onyeka, but when that shot goes up, he’s going to get it.”
Okongwu was a lone bright spot of an ugly first half for USC. The Trojans (1-0) shot just 33.3% from the field, made one of eight three-point attempts and mustered only a one-point lead over a team chosen to finish ninth in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The Trojans had one made free throw in the first half. Their second make was negated on a lane violation on the final play before halftime.
The Trojans, who scored 50 points in the paint, survived on their defense that forced 19 turnovers and kept the Rattlers at 32.2% shooting on the night. While the three-point shooting never clicked, finishing three for 17, the Trojans got support from Mobley, who scored all 17 of his points in the second half and added seven rebounds.
The two five-star recruits were the centerpieces of USC’s recruiting class that was ranked seventh in the country by 247Sports. Fellow freshmen Ethan Anderson and Kyle Sturdivant combined for just six points, but the point guards committed only two turnovers and added 11 assists. Anderson (four points, two steals, seven assists) started in place of senior Jonah Mathews, who came off the bench after being late to classes.
Okongwu was the first player out of the locker room after the win when he returned to the court for a radio interview. He greeted fans on the baseline and took photos. He said the attention doesn’t faze him, although he’s uninterested in it, just like how he didn’t fret coming up one block short of the school record.
“If he wants to break the school record,” Enfield said, “do it in the next game.”