The freshman phenom sat at the end of the bench, dressed in all black. The starting point guard sat a few seats away, cringing as he rubbed his injured left knee. For a struggling offense, in the middle of a three-game losing streak, the circumstances appeared bleak.
It had already been a difficult week at USC as freshman Kyle Sturdivant dealt with the loss of his father, Gary, who died last week in an accident. His teammates rallied around him and tried their best to carry on. They also went on without leading scorer Onyeka Okongwu, who remained in the concussion protocol.
The situation practically begged for the young and inconsistent Trojans to fall apart. But instead, USC (18-7, 7-5) beat Washington, the Pac-12’s last-place team 62-56.
“This one is for you, Kyle,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “It’s been a rough week, but we had eight guys show up tonight and really compete.”
It had also been a rough night back in January when the Trojans first met the Huskies on the road. They scored just 40 points and shot just 20% from the field in a defeat that would stick with a team desperate not to drop a game at home for fear of its tournament bubble bursting.
But as both offenses came crawling out of the gate, it appeared history might repeat itself. Again, the Trojans were stalling. Again, nothing from the field was falling.
“We had a lot of open shots,” Enfield said. “We had the ball in the middle. We had the ball in the corner. We had dribble penetration. We just didn’t make any.”
At one point, USC hit just one of 13 shots, then proceeded to make just one of its next eight to follow.
Trailing by five at halftime, the Trojans needed a turning point.
Instead, starting point guard Ethan Anderson was clutching his hyper-extended left knee at the tail end of a 9-0 run to start the second half. Anderson eventually got up and limped to the locker room, but it was left to his teammates to keep USC’s patchwork offense together without both of its top point guards.
Without freshman big man Okongwu, who leads the team in points (16.4), rebounds (8.9) and blocks (3), Nick Rakocevic stepped up, chipping in a team-high 19 points. Freshman Isaiah Mobley also played well, scoring 10 and adding seven boards while holding hulking Washington forward Isaiah Stewart to 11 points.
USC’s stingy defense would do much of the heavy lifting, holding Washington without a score for seven minutes in the second half. But defense had carried them only so far against Arizona State, which it held scoreless for 11 minutes in a loss last Saturday.
So with Okongwu watching from the bench, it was the seniors who carried USC across the finish line.
Until late in the second half, it had been a relatively off night for Jonah Mathews. He was just two for nine from the field when he hit a runner in the paint to extend the Trojans’ lead to five. On the next possession, he took off on a fastbreak and pulled up unexpectedly from behind the arc, thinking of the transition lay-in that was swallowed up just minutes before.
His smooth jumper fell. Forty seconds later, he added another, giving the Trojans a nine-point lead they would not relinquish.
“Shooters shoot,” Mathews said. “Just had to keep that in mind.”
USC’s shooters were much more effective after the half, including Mathews, who finished with 16 points. The Trojans were just 27% from the field in the first, compared with 44% in the second half.
“Without two guys, it was difficult at times,” Enfield said. “But we battled.”
On Thursday, DeMar DeRozan, who starred at USC in the 2008-09 season, became the seventh Trojan to have his jersey retired.
A Compton native, DeRozan averaged 13.9 points during his tenure at USC. DeRozan was drafted ninth overall in the 2009 draft and went on to play for the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs.