Onyeka Okongwu forces opponents to pick their poison. Do they give up a layup to the athletic 6-foot-9 forward or do they just foul the star freshman?
On Tuesday, Pepperdine fell victim to both fates.
Okongwu scored a career-high 33 points, making eight of 11 shots from the field and 17 of 21 from the free throw line, in USC’s 91-84 win over Pepperdine on Tuesday at Galen Center.
“He’s a load in there,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “He’s strong, he knows how to seal and he’s also explosive when he has the ball. It’s hard to guard. Usually the only thing you can do is foul him when he gets too deep in the paint.”
The Trojans combined for a season-high in points with four double-digit scorers. Senior Nick Rakocevic notched his third straight double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds and a career-high six assists. Senior Jonah Mathews added 16 points, with freshman Isaiah Mobley scoring 14 in 17 minutes off the bench.
USC, which is off to its first 5-0 start since the 2016-17 season, needed all the scoring it could get to contend with Pepperdine’s Colbey Ross, who poured in 38 points with six rebounds and three assists.
Ross wowed USC players and coaches, making six of 10 from three-point range. When the 6-foot-1 junior drove to the basket and floated a shot over the extended arm of Okongwu, who tied the USC record for blocks in a game in his collegiate debut, the USC freshman looked stunned. Afterward, he acknowledged it was just a great shot that overcame his own great defense.
Led by Ross, Pepperdine (3-2) hit three straight three-pointers to cut a nine-point deficit with 3:43 to go in the second half to just three with 2:14 remaining.
Okongwu and Rakocevic helped fend off the comeback attempt as Okongwu made two free throws and slammed a two-handed dunk off a Rakocevic lob pass with 1:19 to go. The alley-oop put the Trojans up by seven.
USC’s three main post players -- Okongwu, Rakocevic and Mobley -- have developed a quick chemistry this season. The two freshmen have known each other for years as teammates on the Compton Magic and Rakocevic has fit in seamlessly.
“I love playing with Nick, he’s a great player,” Okongwu said. “He takes pressure off of me, I take pressure off of him.”
Along with delivering his tried-and-true combination of rebounding and low-post scoring, Rakocevic also knocked down his first career three-pointer and led the team in assists.
Rakocevic, who was named Pac-12 player of the week Monday, was scolded earlier in the season for taking an ill-advised three-pointer, but even Enfield was happy with the open shot he knocked down from the top of the arc early in the second half. The senior forward, who had only six long-range attempts in his career prior to Tuesday’s game, raised a fist in the air as he tipped his head back in a joyful laugh.
“He’s a very skilled 6-11 big man and he’s versatile,” Enfield said. “He got player of the week this week, so it’s not a secret. When he plays to his strengths, he looks like an all-league-type player.”