The Trojans stood side by side, arm in arm, at the end of a week of sorrow and disbelief. Four days had passed since a helicopter crash claimed the life of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others, and all around the city, hoops was starting anew.
But as the Trojans stood on a court bathed in purple and gold light, wearing black shirts bearing the No. 24 and the surname of the man so many of them grew up idolizing, the emotional weight of the week past was still present. They stood silent for 24.8 seconds, feeling every ounce of it, before the buzzer sounded, imploring them to move forward.
They tried. But for the game’s first 32 minutes, it seemed USC (17-4, 6-2) was paralyzed, in serious danger of losing a game at home to Utah that they couldn’t afford to lose. They missed open shots. They looked sluggish. At one point, they trailed by double digits.
Still, USC mustered the strength down the stretch, managing a narrow 56-52 win that it should hope to never revisit. It won despite shooting just 37% and dishing out fewer assists (nine) than turnovers (11). It won despite losing the rebounding battle and scoring just four second-chance points to Utah’s 12.
It won despite the emotionally draining week that came before.As the Trojans mounted another second-half comeback, they did so with Bryant on their minds.
“We were playing for Kobe,” guard Elijah Weaver said. “We were not losing at home.”
So, after stumbling through the first half and part of the second, USC started chipping away, as it had so many other times this season. The Trojans had already closed big deficits against Louisiana State, Texas Christian, Stanford, and Oregon, with only the latter game actually ending in defeat. That experience would come in handy on Thursday.
“We’ve been there before,” forward Nick Rakocevic said. “These little leads, they don’t faze us.
It was Rakocevic who’d kept USC afloat, even as its offense continued to sink at the game’s start. The senior had struggled in recent weeks, scoring 10 or fewer in each of his past four, but against Utah, he was the Trojans’ steadying hand. Rakocevic scored 16 points and added 15 rebounds, good for his sixth double-double of the season.
It was Weaver, though, who first keyed the comeback run, hitting a top-of-the-key three-pointer with just over 12 minutes remaining. It was one of just four long-range shots USC hit all game.
But this particular three-pointer jump-started a 12-2 run, as the Trojans defense continued to suffocate a struggling Utah offense. Down low, Rakocevic, Isaiah Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu, who added 11 points and 11 rebounds, locked down as USC blocked eight shots and Utah hit fewer than 29% of its attempts inside the arc after halftime.
“When you can’t score yourself, you better defend,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “We’ve done that.”
That defense may not be enough against some of the Pac-12’s better offenses, including Colorado, which comes to Galen Center on Saturday. But as USC clung to a narrow lead on the heels of its comeback, the impressive defense was enough to hold in the final minute on Thursday.
With less than 10 seconds remaining, Okongwu found himself matched with Timmy Allen, Utah’s leading scorer. Allen, a sophomore, tried to drive past but Okongwu shuffled along, shadowing him closely.
As he lifted for a tying lay-in, Okongwu didn’t so much as block Allen’s shot, as he did swallow it whole.
Allen was fouled soon after. With the game on the line, he made both free throws, icing the Utes (12-8, 3-5) for good.
It was a gutsy comeback, after a difficult start, on a night when only sheer will could move them forward.
“It’s been a really hard week,” Enfield said. “So it is nice to win a game in which we do honor [Bryant].”