Despite starting slowly, USC basketball surged late to overcome Utah in a tight battle at the Galen Center on Thursday night.
The night started solemnly with a 24.8-second moment of silence to honor Kobe Bryant and the eight other victims of Sunday’s tragic helicopter crash.
When the buzzer sounded and play began, USC still looked in a daze. The Trojans missed their first four shots and hit just two of their first 16 attempts from the field. It’s no wonder Utah was able to take an early 16-6 lead.
Eventually Rakocevic sparked the offense by hitting four-of-five shots , including a three-pointer to keep the Trojans in it as the first half progressed.
Utah held a 29-23 halftime advantage.
Midway through the second half things changed for USC. Utah’s shooting went ice cold while the Trojans ripped off a 10-0 run.
It started with an Elijah Weaver triple and continued more than three minutes later when Weaver delivered a layup. Then Jonah Mathews got the Galen Center crowd on their feet with a three-pointer and Weaver blew off the roof with a fast break layup on the following possession. The run put USC up 41-40, their first lead of the game.
The Trojans couldn’t pull away though. Each time their lead expanded, Utah quickly closed it.
Going into the final two minutes of the game the two teams were deadlocked at 50. Utah’s Timmy Allen rolled in a layup to take a two-point lead.
The free throw line took center stage as Jonah Mathews was fouled and made both free throws, tying the game. Utah’s Branden Carlson was fouled on the next possession and missed both of his tries.
USC took advantage. Onyeka Okongwu drove to the hoop but his shot bounced out. Rakocevic was there to clean up, putting the Trojans up 54-52 with 15 seconds left.
Utah’s hopes of drawing even again were blocked, literally, by Okongwu, who denied Timmy Allen’s drive.
Seconds remaining on the clock, USC completed the inbounds pass to Okongwu, who hit both free throws to lock in the 56-52 victory.
USC had four players in double figures on Thursday night and each played a key roll in the outcome.
Rakocevic got the Trojans out of their early hole with a standout first half performance. He finished atop all scorers with 16 points and 15 rebounds.
Weaver was the fulcrum in the second half, delivering big shots in the big moments. He finished with 15 points and was 5-of-8 from the field.
Mathews hit just 1-of-5 three-point attempts but the one he hit was pivotal and his 8-of-8 mark from the free throw line helped seal the game and a stat line with 13 points.
Finally, it was Okongwu’s presence in the paint late on offense and defense which clinched it. He had 11 points and 11 rebounds.
It was far from good basketball, for either team, but the Trojans got the job done at home and improved their record to 17-4 on the season.
Player of the game: Nick Rakocevic, whose putback gave USC the late lead.
Stat of the game: USC shot 37.3 percent from the field, but found 14 points at the free throw line in 16 attempts.
Next on tap: A pivotal matchup with Colorado awaits on Saturday at the Galen Center at 7:30 p.m. The Buffaloes and Trojans are battling neck-and-neck for second place in the Pac-12.