USC is used to high drama in the final minutes of a game. The Trojans have played eight games decided by five points or less. They've had another eight games where the final margin was less than 10 points. But on Wednesday night, with USC holding a 25-point lead over Washington State, the only drama remaining was a rebound.
Trojans point guard Jordan McLaughlin was one rebound shy of a triple-double when a ball popped off the rim in his direction. But out of nowhere, freshman guard Jonah Mathews skied through the air to snatch the ball away from McLaughlin and anyone else down below.
"He stole that. He was at the rim level, so Jordan can't really jump that high. That was pretty impressive," USC head coach Andy Enfield said.
USC called timeout seconds later. Enfield took both players out, ending McLaughlin's attempt to become the second Trojan with a triple-double and bringing to a close the only uncertainty of a game that had been decided since USC went on a 17-3 run to take a 14-point lead barely six minutes into the game.
The Trojans pushed their lead up to as many as 22 in the first half, taking a 48-28 lead into the break. Any question about whether USC would relax and let the Cougars back into the game was answered when Bennie Boatwright drained a three-pointer on the opening possession of the second half. Washington State never got within 20 points in the second half as USC won 87-63 Wednesday night at the Galen Center.
To go along with his nine rebounds, McLaughlin finished with a team-high 16 points on 6 of 12 shooting. He added 10 assists with only two turnovers. Chimezie Metu also finished with nine rebounds, one shy of his third consecutive double-double. Bennie Boatwright also had a streak snapped. He finished with 14 points on 5 of 10 shooting, falling short of hitting the 20-point plateau for the fourth straight game.
Washington State reserve forward Robert Franks finished with a game-high 20 points, but was one of four Cougars with three turnovers. Josh Hawkinson, who had 16 points, was another.
Mathews finished with 12 points on 4 of 8 shooting, but after the game, it was his rebound that everyone was talking about.
"I'm never going to stop hearing the end of that," Mathews said in the post-game press conference while sitting beside McLaughlin.
On his way to the locker room after the game, associate head coach Tony Bland "called me a hater. Everyone is calling me a hater. I just took the rebound, trying to get the rebound, but my fault Mac."
"Nah. It's all good," McLaughlin said. "We talked in the locker room. Everything's good."
On a night that USC got back to playing strong basketball on both ends and snapped a four-game losing streak, it was all good.
Here's three takeaways from USC's 87-64 win against Cougars Wednesday night:
While his rebound will be remembered, Jonah Mathews' defensive intensity is what stood out. From the instant he checked into the game, Mathews was standing at the opposite free throw line ready to pressure Washington State's point guards as they brought the ball up the floor. The three-quarters court pressure didn't necessarily result in steals and quick fast break baskets, but it is disruptive.
"It doesn't let them get into their offense as easily," Mathews said. "We usually let a team just walk it up and get into their stuff. Coach [Jason] Hart says pick them up three-quarters court. When you do that, it messes up their flow to their offense. That's what he told me to do every time, so I'm going to keep on doing that."
Andy Enfield said Mathews is probably the only player on the team that can effectively provide that pressure.
"He's very good at it. He's a great on-the-ball defender. He works hard at it and he contains the basketball. That's really beneficial to us."
Mathews' effort was just an example of an entire team that was competing as hard on the defensive end as when trying to score. The defensive energy was apparent throughout the roster and in the stats where USC collected four steals and seven blocks. The Trojans also forced 14 turnovers and turned those into 22 points.
"The difference tonight was our defense. You can't expect to win road games in this league giving up 80+ points," Enfield said referencing USC's Arizona road trip. "We scored enough against those teams to win. We just didn't defend like we needed to. Tonight we defended. Had the blocked shots, the steals, deflections and we really ran them off the three-point line."
The Trojans have to win games on both ends and tonight was a reminder of what they can accomplish when they are locked in.
"They know they have heat on them," Washington State head coach Ernie Kent said. "USC needed a win tonight, they need to take care of business on Saturday and in Las Vegas. But tonight they had their focus and were very sharp."
For Jordan McLaughlin, the key was verbal communication on the defensive end. The Trojans talked more and were locked in on their defensive assignments.
"It's something we focused on all week. Just talking. That's what all the NBA teams do. They point, talk, make sure everybody is in the right place."
Jordan McLaughlin entered Wednesday night's game having scored in double figures just once in the previous six games. His five single-digit scoring efforts were as many as he had in the first 23 games of the seaosn. He has slumped and so have the Trojans. After shooting better than 50 percent throughout the non-conference schedule, McLaughlin was shooting just 39 percent in Pac-12 play entering Wednesday.
From the opening tip, McLaughlin was more aggressive against Washington State. He fired through the spacious gaps in the Cougars defense and found teammates when the help defense came over.
"Our motto is to play fast, play smart and play unselfish," McLaughlin said. "Tonight, their defense was helping a lot and everyone was making the right plays. Just getting off the ball and making the extra pass. They might have had a good shot, but we passed it up for a greater shot.
But he also wasn't afraid to call his own number from deep. He knocked down a trio of trifectas in the first half and finished 4 of 7 for the game from deep. The seven attempts were the most he has tried in a game this season and it was only the second time he has hit four.
McLaughlin has been battling a back injury recently and is a player that hits the deck a lot, so it's possible he's been a little nicked up recently, but if USC wants to play to its full potential, it needs McLaughlin to be aggressive and be the playmaking point guard he is.
For the first time this season, junior guard Elijah Stewart wasn't in USC's starting lineup. The Trojans' leading scorer at the guard position was benched by Andy Enfield, who did not elaborate on why Shaqquan Aaron started instead of Stewart.
"Just coach's decision," Enfield said. "That's my decision. Shaqquan played great and Elijah played well off the bench tonight."
Stewart entered and played with the second group, playing a lot of the four position in the first half as USC went to a four-guard lineup. Stewart played just six minutes in the first half, missing his only shot.
In the second half, he got going a little bit with six points, including a reverse dunk on a half court alley-oop pass from Jordan McLaughlin and a second dunk. He added two rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal in 17 minutes of action.
"I was happy that Elijah really stepped it up in the second half. I thought he made some great passes. He really turned his game up. We need him to give us that energy on a nightly basis."
The second of USC's two-game season comes Saturday at 3:30 p.m. PST (Pac-12 Networks) against a bad Washington team that is only dangerous if its top player, Markelle Fultz returns after having missed four of the last six Huskies games with a knee injury. In the first matchup, Fultz had 20 points but missed 10 of his 17 shots. The Huskies kept the game close, but the Trojans pulled away for an 82-74 win. Washington is mired in an 11-game losing streak and the Trojans hope to continue that, especially against a team that it could see next Wednesday in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.
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