Daniel Utomi made his name behind the arc. Ever since he could remember, he’d been a shooter, bombing three-pointers at will. At Akron, he fired off nearly 500 over his final two seasons, and at USC, where he joined as a graduate transfer last spring, he was expected to do much of the same.
But until Saturday night, when Utomi almost single-handedly shot USC past Washington State in a 70-51 victory, the veteran shooter was struggling mightily to shoot. Utomi hit only six three-pointers in USC’s first 10 games. Over the last dozen Pac-12 games, as the Trojans lingered within striking distance of the conference lead, Utomi was shooting under 34% from long range.
Then, on Saturday, with three minutes remaining in the first half, Utomi pulled up from deep, knocked down a three-pointer, and the floodgates finally opened.
USC (19-7, 8-5) led by just two points then, locked in what looked like another sloppy offensive affair. Its defense was playing as stingy as ever — the Cougars had just missed nine of their last 10 — but still, the Trojans failed to capitalize. It seemed the same sort of slog USC fought its way through all season, the kind of contest it could no longer afford to play, if it had any hope still of seizing the Pac-12.
As Utomi knocked down the first of his five three-pointers, though, an offense that spent the last three weeks on life support suddenly came alive. It did so without leading scorer and rebounder Onyeka Okongwu, who sat out another game in the concussion protocol. At one point, USC nearly lost his replacement, too, as Isaiah Mobley rolled his ankle on a rebound and briefly went to the locker room.
“Losing a guy like O is very hard,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “We were really concerned this week. But we told our guys, this is an opportunity for everyone else.”
Okongwu could return as soon as Thursday, but on Saturday night, with a sweep on the line, Utomi heeded that call. The grad transfer scored a season-high 23 points, while adding six rebounds and four assists in what was easily his best all-around performance at USC thus far.
“If I just shoot well,” Utomi said, “it opens up a lot for a lot of people.”
That proved to be the case Saturday, as the Trojans shook off the slump during which they lost three straight heading into the weekend. Even as seniors Jonah Mathews and Nick Rakocevic struggled from the field, shooting a combined six for 18, the rest of the team stepped up, eclipsing 50%. Mobley scored nine and added 11 rebounds, starting in place of Okongwu, while point guard Ethan Anderson, returning from his own injury, scored 12.
The Cougars couldn’t quite find the same rhythm. After hitting two three-pointers in the game’s first 90 seconds, Washington State missed 21 in a row at one point, as USC stifled its perimeter shooters as planned.
“They couldn’t beat us inside,” Enfield said, recalling what he told his players. “The only place they can beat us is at the three-point line.”
As USC pushed its lead to nine just before the half, it never gave Washington State the chance. The Cougars never managed to cut the deficit any further. They hit just one more from long range, while Utomi added four more himself after halftime.
From there, for the first time in a long time, offense finally seemed to come easy to USC, which, for the moment, sits half a game back of first place in the Pac-12.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, when your offense simply refuses to miss. For the first five minutes of the second half, a perfect shooting percentage seemed to iron out all issues that plagued the Trojans offense for much of the past month. By the time Rakocevic finally missed a layin, USC led by 17.
The Trojans didn’t miss much after that. But after the best game of his brief USC career, the senior shooter still couldn’t help but ask for more.
“There were a couple missed shots I wished I could have, to be honest,” Utomi said, with a grin.