Quinton Adlesh lay sprawled on the court, peering up at his own basket, powerless to stop the Arizona State onslaught. The sparingly used senior point guard did what he could to prevent the Trojans’ 17th turnover of the game, but the press was too stifling and Remy Martin, the Sun Devils’ erratic point guard, was too fast cutting a once-soaring USC lead to one point with an easy layup.
It was at this juncture, three weeks earlier, that the wheels came off in Tempe, Ariz. As USC succumbed to the press, it turned the ball over 24 times, 16 in the second half, on its way to a defeat. Upon arriving home, with its longest losing streak of the season in tow, USC vowed never to lose grip like that again.
But with nine minutes remaining and its tournament hopes still in flux, the Trojans could feel their second meeting with Arizona State slipping away. That’s when Jonah Mathews grabbed tight and simply refused to let go.
As USC (21-9, 10-7 Pac-12 Conference) regained control, eventually rolling to a 71-61 victory over the Sun Devils, the senior guard came alive over the course of those final nine minutes. After Adlesh’s turnover, Mathews scored the Trojans’ next eight points, thwarting a 11-0 Sun Devils run and halting a major momentum swing almost entirely on his own.
“We knew they would come back with a punch,” Mathews said. “But at that point, I just wanted to solidify the win. I just had to make plays as a senior.”
Mathews landed quite a few of his own punches over the course of a weekend in which the Trojans could’ve been knocked out of the tournament picture. After dealing with a flu-like virus during USC’s most recent trip, Mathews scored a team-high 14 points in a victory over Arizona on Thursday, then followed up that performance with a season-high 23 points Saturday.
“For him to bounce back like that so quickly is impressive,” coach Andy Enfield said. “He’s just been playing super basketball.”
He wasn’t the only senior with such a claim Saturday. While Mathews got off to a slow start, it was Daniel Utomi who came out firing. The graduate transfer made three three-point baskets in the first four minutes and finished with 19 points to go with 10 rebounds for his first double-double at USC.
Even Adlesh, who didn’t play against Arizona, did his part. The Columbia graduate transfer scored a season-high six points and played stifling defense on Martin, who finished with 22 points.
But turnovers nearly were the Trojans’ demise again. At one point in the first half, USC turned the ball over on five of six possessions against Arizona State’s full-court press.
The Trojans had 14 turnovers in the first half. Asked how he implored the team to cut down on that number, Enfield responded, “Very loudly.”
Apparently, turning up the volume was an effective method. The Trojans turned the ball over only five times after halftime.
“You can’t coach some things on the court,” Enfield said. “You have to go perform. We finally did that in the second half.”
Before the turnovers began to pile up, the Trojans opened the game at a torrid pace. They made seven of their first eight shots during a 14-2 run. As Daniel Utomi made his third three-pointer, setting off the crowd in Galen Center, the Trojans seemed primed to blow past the Sun Devils, who missed nine of their first 10 shots.
That gap quickly closed. A 13-point lead dwindled to five points within four minutes. Then, the Arizona State press was on.
But in a pressure-packed game, with plenty of tournament implications, that pressure was not enough to stop USC this time. Instead, the Trojans responded with a portfolio-boosting weekend unlike they’ve had all season.
With victories over Arizona and Arizona State, USC should be comfortably on the right side of the bubble.
Regardless, Mathews isn’t about to loosen his grip.
“We know we’re not satisfied,” Mathews said. “We beat these two teams. But there’s more stuff to do, to accomplish what we want to accomplish. No one is thinking we can take our foot off the gas.”