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A tale of two USC seniors: Tahj Eaddy lives March dream as Jonah Mathews seeks closure

USC guard Tahj Eaddy reacts after making a game-winning three-point shot.
USC guard Tahj Eaddy reacts after making a game-winning three-point shot against UCLA on March 6 at Pauley Pavilion.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

In Westwood, Tahj Eaddy darted to his left toward the corner, caught a pass and elevated, letting it fly. In Sweden, Jonah Mathews watched Eaddy’s shot from a bus while bent over his laptop, surrounded by a new team with little knowledge of the USC-UCLA rivalry or the magic that can be conjured during this month if you don’t stop believing.

One year after a Mathews buzzer-beater stunned the Bruins at Galen Center, the Trojans found themselves celebrating another signature victory at Pauley Pavilion that came with an indistinguishable mark — a clutch, game-winning three-pointer by a USC senior guard wearing the same jersey number.

“It has to be the No. 2,” Mathews told Eaddy after dialing into the Trojans’ postgame party from 5,000 miles away.

Dozens of text messages pinged Mathews’ phone, some of them posing the natural question: Whose was better?

But really, that was beside the point. Both shots beat UCLA in the last game of the regular season and sent the message that more thrills could be on the horizon.

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“I was just laughing,” said Nick Rakocevic, a senior big man on last year’s USC team who watched from China. “It was the same exact thing.”

USC guard Tahj Eaddy makes a game-winning three-point shot against UCLA guard Jaylen Clark.
USC’s Tahj Eaddy makes a game-winning three-point shot over UCLA’s Jaylen Clark on March 6 at Pauley Pavilion.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

It was — until the roads guiding the 2020 and 2021 Trojans diverged in polar opposite directions the next week at the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. In 2020, on a Thursday morning as the Trojans were preparing to tip off that day, Mathews was in his hotel room when he got the news that the event was going to be canceled because of a deadly coronavirus that was barely on his radar. Hours later, fears of COVID-19 took down the NCAA tournament too. Mathews’ heroic shot would be his last as a Trojan.

In 2021, Eaddy and his fellow seniors played that Thursday Pac-12 quarterfinal game and beat Utah. They lost Friday to Colorado but left Vegas with full confidence — barring some awful luck in the ongoing battle with the virus — that they would have the chance to play for a national championship beginning this week in Indianapolis.

“We missed out on Selection Sunday. We missed out on being in March Madness,” Mathews said. “It hurts me more because I’ve been to March Madness and know what it feels like. I know what the atmosphere feels like, arriving to your hotel and having hundreds of fans waiting for you. It’s the experience you want to go through. So to see it happen this year, it’s like, ‘Dang, I want to be in that.’ ”

Mathews continues on, uttering the pained rationalization — everything happens for a reason — of a lost class of seniors across America who didn’t get to finish what they started and still do not have any closure.

The NCAA did not offer an extra year of eligibility to college basketball players last year as it did for the spring-sport athletes whose regular seasons were cut short. Meanwhile, this year, in an effort to entice players to participate in a pandemic season and acknowledge their immense personal sacrifice to do so, the NCAA will allow all players an extra year to compete after this one.

A year after COVID-19 wiped out what could have been a promising 2020 tournament campaign, the USC men’s basketball team is feeling confident again.

This put Eaddy’s group of seniors in an enviable position — play a COVID-affected regular season and postseason and have the option to do it all over again under normal circumstances.

“I just felt bad for everybody,” Eaddy said of last year’s seniors. “It’s tough that they can’t fulfill their destiny like you want to. I know it’s rough for them to see now that this year is kind of like a free year for everybody and seniors are able to come back.”

Eaddy has not decided about next year. But if Mathews had the same choice a year ago, there might not have been a roster spot open for Eaddy to transfer into at USC.

“I would have come back without hesitation,” Mathews said.

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Jonah Mathews came to USC from Santa Monica High and within months was swept up in the fun of two NCAA tournament wins (one coming in a First Four game) and a trip to the second round. The loss to Baylor was heartbreaking, but he had every reason to think he’d be back again.

But the next year, the Trojans were snubbed by the tournament selection committee and left out of the field despite a second-place finish in the Pac-12. And the next, USC couldn’t put it together even with talented scorers such as Bennie Boatwright and Kevin Porter Jr. on the roster. Mathews came back for his senior year in 2019-20 with the sole mission of getting the program back to the big stage.

“The whole season is for you to get to March,” Mathews said. “From July to wherever the season officially starts, you want to go to March Madness. Getting in and seeing your [school] name on the big screen, that’s what it’s all about.”

When Mathews made that transition three at Galen, sending the packed house into pandemonium, he thought he finished the job. Later that day, as he dined with his family at a restaurant, news of the virus’ spread in the United States flashed on a nearby TV. He didn’t think much of it.

USC guard Jonah Mathews (2) reacts toward the crowd after beating UCLA with a last-second shot in 2020.
USC guard Jonah Mathews (2) reacts to the crowd after his three-point shot in the final seconds beat UCLA at Galen Center on March 7, 2020.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

On that Thursday in Las Vegas, when the dream that had carried him for three years was snuffed out, the USC underclassmen approached him, Rakocevic and graduate transfers Daniel Utomi and Quinton Adlesh and thanked them for everything.

“I was more upset for Daniel and Quinton, who transferred from their schools to get to the tournament,” Mathews said. “To just touch it and be so close and have it happen like that …”

Utomi, who transferred from Akron, and Adlesh, who came from Columbia, were emotional. It really hit Rakocevic on the bus ride back to L.A.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘What could have been?’ ” said Rakocevic, who is playing professionally in China for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls. “We didn’t even lose. It’s not like we lost to UCLA and ended our season or lost to North Carolina or Kentucky. We lost to a virus, and at that time, we didn’t know how serious it was. We thought it was unnecessary.”

It was up to USC coach Andy Enfield to pick up the pieces and build anew around one of the best players in the nation, center Evan Mobley. Not long after the season ended, a guard from Santa Clara named Tahj Eaddy popped up in the transfer portal.

How to watch and stream the NCAA men’s basketball tournament during March Madness.

The Trojans knew Eaddy well from a shocking loss to Santa Clara in December 2018. He seemed like the type of veteran guard who could step in for a guy like Mathews and provide steady leadership.

Eaddy would certainly appreciate the opportunity to don the cardinal and gold. A self-described “late bloomer” as a 140-pounder coming out of high school, Eaddy spent a year in prep school before attending Southeast Missouri State — about as far away from March Madness as a Division I player can be. He transferred to Santa Clara, sitting out a year to continue growing his game and contributing two solid seasons.

After all of that, Eaddy still had a year left to play. He wanted one final shot to prove himself at a power conference school as a grad transfer. At USC, the No. 2 jersey was waiting for a new owner.

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After the UCLA win on March 7, 2020, Mathews did not play in another basketball game until January 2021. He was wearing the jersey of the Koping Stars in the Basketligan, Sweden’s top professional league that is a far cry competitively from the Pac-12.

There, Mathews is averaging 21 points per game as he gets his game in gear for what he hopes is an NBA or G League tryout that he never got because of the pandemic. None of this is how he imagined it going, but after wondering when he would ever play again, he can appreciate the opportunity.

“I was on the radar at USC, but now I’m completely off of it,” Mathews said. “Feeling like, what am I working out for? My family kept me motivated.”

USC guard Jonah Mathews is swarmed by teammates.
USC’s Jonah Mathews (2) and Isaiah Mobley (15) celebrate with teammates after defeating UCLA on March 7, 2020.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

He can easily imagine an alternate universe in which he was granted an extra year to come back to USC. He thinks he could have convinced Rakocevic to return too, but the big man says there’s no way. Rakocevic was done with college life, and, surely, many seniors this year will feel the same way.

What will Eaddy do? He committed to USC and the prospect of a season with COVID long before he ever knew he could get two years in at the school. Now, he’s probably the team’s most important piece aside from Mobley, but he’s also 24 and is running out of time to make money off his talent.

“I do understand my age, but I also understand what USC would be capable of if I did return next year,” Eaddy said. “This is my first time playing in March Madness, so I’m really just trying to do something special.”

Eaddy has what Mathews would have wanted most — one more year. But, for his and the Trojans’ sake, that’s the last thing Eaddy can afford to consider.

“You have that in your back pocket,” Eaddy said, “but you’ve got to have that sense of urgency that this is my last year. Every possession, every game matters, because who knows? You don’t want to leave anything to chance.”


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