Jonah Mathews knew it was only a matter of time. The senior had seen plenty of slumps during his tenure at USC, and he wasn’t about to dwell on the Trojans’ tough start from long range during the Pac-12 Conference season. All slumps passed eventually, he knew; often, they busted wide open, giving way to an unexpected surge of offense.
That surge arrived on Thursday as USC (14-3, 3-1) returned home to the Galen Center for just the third time since Thanksgiving and swept away California 88-56. It was the largest margin of victory for USC in a Pac-12 game since 2007.
After shooting worse than 28% from three-point range over its first three conference games, the Trojans bid adieu to their issues from behind the arc. They hit six of eight in the first half to take a 16-point lead and never looked back.
With California (8-9, 2-2) double-teaming the post, USC relied primarily on its shooters. And against the Pac-12’s worst scoring team, those shooters responded with their most efficient performance of the season, knocking down 61% from long range on 23 attempts.
The barrage of deep shots began with Mathews, who hit a wide-open three-pointer shortly after the opening tip. After scoring 16 points in a victory over UCLA last week, Mathews added 19 on Thursday, the most the senior has scored in more than a month.
Daniel Utomi followed shortly after, hitting his first three-point attempt on the next possession. The grad transfer from Akron had worked his way into the starting lineup a game earlier, and on Thursday, he proved he may stay there for the long haul.
Before his debut as a starter at UCLA, Utomi had scored in double figures just three times this season. But he notched 13 against the Bruins and found his stroke against the Bears, finishing with 17 points to go with seven rebounds.
“He started out the year very slowly,” Trojans coach Andy Enfield said. “Missed a lot of open shots. And now he’s getting back to what we expected of him. He’s shooting with confidence.”
When asked whether Utomi would remain a starter on a regular basis, Enfield said the arrangement was “permanent, for now.”
Together, the two experienced shooters made for a scorching pair from the perimeter, one an ice-cold California offense couldn’t keep up with. The Bears, who had swept Washington and Washington State the week before, barely put up a fight Thursday.
The Bears shot just 34% from the field, while USC clamped down to hold Cal’s leading scorer, Matt Bradley, to just 13 points in one of his least efficient showings of the season.
Until it came alive from outside, USC appeared poised to feed star freshman Onyeka Okongwu in the paint, if only for him to work his way out of a slump.
Okongwu was coming off perhaps his quietest game of the season Saturday, as UCLA forced him into early foul trouble and kept him from touching the ball throughout. That off night came after a similar struggle in Seattle, where Washington’s aggressive zone gave him trouble. Okongwu scored just a combined 14 points in the two sub-par showings.
California tried a similar approach as UCLA and Washington, doubling Okongwu down low and offering up weak-side help whenever it could. The freshman had a relatively quiet night offensively as a result, with just 12 points. He could face more of the same on Saturday against Stanford, which also regularly doubles in the post.
But while the Bears focused on frustrating Okongwu and senior forward Nick Rakocevic (nine points), the Trojan big men were content with kicking out to the team’s hot shooters, who often found themselves wide open.
Eventually, everyone got involved in the barrage. Freshman Isaiah Mobley, who hadn’t hit a three-pointer since Nov. 19, hit two from behind the arc on Thursday. As the game was winding down, fellow freshman Max Agbonkpolo pulled from long range and drilled one of his own.
“Sometimes,” Enfield said, “you have to take what the defense gives you.”
With its offense finally surging on Thursday night, USC took that, plus plenty more.