"My boy Jonah is back, boy!" Bennie Boatwright exclaimed, interrupting an interview of Jonah Mathews to let everyone know. "He's a killer. He's been a killer in high school. He's back! My boy!"
Mathews had just produced a career night to help USC (13-0) win the Las Vegas Classic in overtime against Wyoming.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound freshman wing was USC's top rated prospect (No. 62 nationally) in the 2017 class and expected to come in and contribute right away. While he has been a consistent defender on the wing, Mathews was averaging 5.1 point and had shot just 33.3 percent from the field and 28.1 percent on three-pointers entering Game No. 13.
Against Wyoming, Mathews set new career highs in almost every category, scoring 26 points on 9 of 17 shooting, including 5 for 8 on three-point attempts. He had never attempted five 3-pointers in a game. He played 16 more minutes than he had in any game this season. He snatched six steals -- tied for 10th most in a single game in USC history. He secured a career best five rebounds and added two assists.
"I was finding gaps and then just getting steals and getting out," Mathews said.
Defense led to offense to help Mathews start and his teammates set him up for open looks to get him going. He knocked down his first three 3-pointers of the game.
"My teammates found me in the right spots. De'Anthony [Melton] found me a couple of threes that got me going. My game took off from there."
Mathews checked into the game nearly four games into the game when Elijah Stewart quickly picked up his second foul. Mathews did not check out. He played the final 16 minutes, racking up 13 points -- one shy of his previous career high.
USC head coach Andy Enfield rode the hot hand, starting Mathews in place of Stewart to begin the second half.
"It was like I have to be on my A-game. They put me out here for a reason," Mathews said. "I was like 'Wow. I'm here. I've got to ball out.'"
The promotion didn't pay immediate dividends. After the first 15 minutes of the second half, Mathews had only three points and had missed his last three 3-pointers. He also had a turnover and had missed one of his two free throw attempts. But even with tired legs after playing the night before, Mathews saved his best for last.
"My dad always told me that shooters keep shooting. Those misses don't even affect me," he said. "Next shot I'm going to make. [Jordan] McLaughlin always tells me, 'Next one will go in. Next one is going in.' When I made it, I was like, 'Okay. Now I'm back rolling.'"
McLaughlin had set him up for an open corner three that swished through with 2:44 to go. That came a possession after Mathews had stolen a pass near halfcourt and took it for a slam.
The Cowboys were able to tie the game with 2.4 seconds remaining when Hayden Dalton hit a deep 3-pointer over the outstretched hand of Mathews. In overtime, Mathews scored the Trojans' first five points. He opened the extra period getting a fast break layup on a Melton steal and feed. USC missed its next three shots, falling behind 90-87, but Mathews evened things up with a big 3-pointer. He added his final steal and the final defensive rebound that set up McLaughlin's game-winning basket.
Enfield was very quick to explain Mathews' breakout performance: "He's a good player. It's pretty simple."
"We expect all of our freshmen to perform. We give them confidence. I have great assistant coaches and they work with our guys every single day"
The Trojans are hoping this is a game Mathews can build on, but USC now enters the stringent portion of their schedule, opening Pac-12 play this Wednesday against Oregon State.
"In the past, I've been a little bit nervous, kind of shaky, but I expect [Pac-12 play] to be a great test for me," Mathews said. "Kind of expect...to come in be a scorer, do what I do and not be nervous."
Watch Jonah Mathews, above, (with guest appearances from Bennie Boatwright and Tony Bland) talk about his career-high 26 points to help lead USC to the Las Vegas Classic championship, what he expects from conference action and what he saw on the Trojans' game-winning bucket by McLaughlin.
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