It was a picture-perfect Hollywood ending. Jonah Mathews just didn’t know then that it was an ending at all.
He never would’ve forgotten that moment, anyway. Whether it was his last at USC or not.
Nine seconds left, down one to UCLA. Coach putting the ball in his hands. The high ball screen that left him free. The step-back move that shook him loose. The liftoff. His right wrist hanging aloft as the three-point shot swished with one second remaining. The Galen Center crowd roaring unlike he’d ever heard before.
But now, as the senior guard sits quarantined in his apartment near USC’s campus, reliving his stunning buzzer-beater, he can’t help but cast that moment in a different light.
That shot was supposed to be his springboard, the beginning of a magical run through the NCAA tournament and hopefully beyond. Instead it just reminds him of how abruptly it all ended, with the tournament canceled and seniors everywhere forced to deal with a similarly cruel conclusion to their college careers in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The way we were playing, we were clicking together,” Mathews said in a phone interview. “I was looking forward to that more than I was looking back at that shot. I was looking forward to making a run.”
If the pandemic hadn’t stopped all college sports in its tracks, ending seasons and cutting short careers, Mathews and the Trojans (22-9) would’ve almost certainly been a part of the 68-team tournament field, with the first round slated for Thursday and Friday. USC had won three in a row and five of its last seven on its way to a Pac-12 quarterfinal meeting with Arizona.
As he waits out the next few weeks, playing Call of Duty on XBox and finally binging “Game of Thrones,” Mathews can’t help but think about what might have been.
“I still haven’t gotten over it,” he said. “I still think we should be in Minneapolis or Spokane right now, just waiting to play. That’s going to take a while to wrap my head around.”
He won’t forget the moment it all came to a halt, either. The players had an inkling last week that the trip to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament might end up for naught. Still, while they waited for a flight home after the conference canceled its tournament, none of them considered that the NCAA might follow suit.
“Canceling March Madness, that was really heartbreaking,” Mathews said. “Some guys haven’t been there. I hadn’t gone back since my freshman year. I was really looking forward to it. To have it taken away so abruptly, it hurts.”
Mathews hasn’t picked up a ball since they were locked up inside the gyms at Galen Center. His coaches are still in regular contact. His locker at USC is still filled with his stuff. He remains stuck in a strange sort of limbo between his final season and the uncertain path ahead, waiting for any sort of sign of how to proceed.
He figures he’ll start looking for an agent soon. But then what? The NBA scouting calendar is on indefinite hold. The NBA draft combine, set for May 21-24, could soon be canceled. If this NBA season picks up again at a later date, it’s unclear if the draft will take place as planned.
Mathews was counting on the tournament to prove himself in that regard. He was playing some of the best basketball of his career, leading the Trojans in scoring in each of his last three games, averaging 18.7 points for that stretch.
His defense was arguably even more impactful, as he earned a place on the Pac-12 all-defensive team. “Jonah has taken it to another level in his career,” coach Andy Enfield said last week. “He’s the best defender on our team by a lot.”
But his final season was marked by inconsistency on the other end. Mathews shot 39.1% overall (38.1% from three-point range) and averaged 13.4 points a game. It wasn’t until the shortened season’s final month that he finally caught his stride, and for scouts, that’s a small sample from which to draw.
March was meant to be his big moment.
“There’s been guys like [Oregon’s] Tyler Dorsey, [Villanova’s] Donte DiVincenzo, who blew up in the tournament and got drafted off of it,” Mathews said.
If he could, Mathews might even consider coming back for another season, in hopes of improving his stock. The NCAA has already announced its intent to offer an additional year of eligibility for seniors whose spring sports seasons were cut short.
But as the governing body considers how to proceed amid unprecedented circumstances, it’s unlikely the same opportunity will be offered to winter sports athletes.
That harsh reality set in for Trojans forward Nick Rakocevic before he’d even returned to Los Angeles. “As sad as it is to say, my college career for me ended on this bus ride back,” Rakocevic said last Thursday, after opting to skip the team flight.
A sense of closure hasn’t been so easy to come by for Mathews, USC’s all-time leader in three-pointers and total wins. He’s not sure how to feel about his draft stock. Or anything, for that matter.
“I was going to prove more,” Mathews said. “Maybe teams think I’ve proven enough, maybe they haven’t. But I feel like I have more to prove to improve that stock. I don’t know what teams are thinking right now, but I’m just hopeful someone thinks I’m good enough.”