Hampered by a stomach virus that he called “the worst sickness I’ve ever had,” the senior scored 12 of his team-high 14 points in the second half of USC’s 57-48 victory over Arizona on Thursday at Galen Center.
Stricken by injuries, illnesses and family tragedy in recent weeks, USC, which lost five of its previous seven games, earned a resume-boosting victory as its NCAA hopes were starting to sag.
“It’s do or die,” said Mathews, who received two IVs after contracting the stomach bug last weekend while the Trojans were on the road. “I don’t have another year, I don’t have any other excuses.”
With the Wildcats (19-9, 9-6 Pac-12) ranked No.7 in the NCAA’s NET rankings heading into Thursday’s game, USC (20-9, 9-7 Pac-12) picked up an all-important Quad 1 win to help woo the selection committee.
The Trojans are 4-7 in Quad 1 games, which consider home games against teams in the top 30 of the NET rankings, neutral games against the top 50 and road games against the top 75. Neither of USC’s remaining home games — Arizona State (No. 43 in NET ranking) and UCLA (78) — currently qualify for a Quad 1 win.
“They understood this game was extremely important,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “We needed to win this game.”
Thursday’s slow-paced, deliberate matchup nearly lulled the crowd of 4,121 to sleep in the first half. It took a dramatic buzzer-beater from freshman Onyeka Okongwu — a heave from the opposite free-throw line as he got hit by a defender — to finally elicit a big response from the home crowd. The game didn’t get a double-digit scorer until 8:26 left in the second half when Arizona guard Nico Mannion hit a three to reach 11 points.
The Wildcats whittled USC’s nine-point second-half lead down to three with 3:53 remaining. A large contingent of Arizona fans became restless, overpowering USC’s timid home crowd.
Mathews promptly quieted the Wildcats faithful with a three-pointer with 3:24 remaining. Arizona didn’t get to within one possession for the rest of the game.
“He was spectacular down the stretch,” Enfield said of Mathews.
Okongwu had 11 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, anchoring USC’s defense that held Arizona, playing without third-leading scorer Josh Green, who was out with a back injury, to a season-low 48 points on 28.1% shooting.
February took a toll on the Trojans. Okongwu missed two games with a concussion and fellow freshman Kyle Sturdivant remains with his family after the death of his father. Gary Sturdivant’s funeral was Thursday, Enfield said.
USC was even more short-handed last weekend against Colorado and Utah when Isaiah Mobley turned his ankle and had to play at 20% because Nick Rakocevic and Mathews were sick. The seniors were drained of their energy and vomited on the plane home.
Rakocevic, who lost 16 pounds from the illness, was still feeling its effects Thursday as he was limited to just 12 minutes and no points. But it didn’t stop Rakocevic from celebrating. He jumped on a teammate’s back during the game to celebrate three-pointers and he was one of the first off the bench as the buzzer sounded.
“To go through what we have with the last two weeks, with the injuries, the sicknesses, the family tragedy, really proud of our guys for how they stuck together,” Enfield said. “This was a huge game for us.”