Onyeka Okongwu’s dominance edges USC past Long Beach

With just under seven minutes remaining in USC’s first home game in 23 days, Trojans freshman Ethan Anderson received the ball from the referee on the baseline. Underneath USC’s own basket, Anderson lobbed a pass to fellow freshman Onyeka Okongwu, who slammed it down. Okongwu, who scored 24 points in just the second half, has put together a first season of collegiate hoops packed with highlights and slams.

“We told him to dominate the paint and stay down in the open area against their matchup zone,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “The back of the zone was open and he stayed there.”

Okongwu finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds in USC’s 87-76 victory over Long Beach State.

“The first half it took me a while to get going and [in the] second half I just came out and wanted to do more for my team, be more of an impact,” Okongwu said. “Long Beach was focusing in on me so I couldn’t really get a lot of post touches.”

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The forward also collected his 34th block of the season, good enough for ninth on USC’s all-time freshman blocks list. He’s among the nation’s top freshman. His scoring average ranks fifth among freshman. He leads all freshmen in total blocks and sits in the top five in blocks per game, free throws made, double-doubles, shooting percentage and offensive rebounds per game.

While Anderson didn’t score, he distributed 12 assists. His play through USC’s first 11 games has caught the attention of his teammates, including senior guard Jonah Mathews.

“Just the poise he has as a freshman coming in,” Mathews said of Anderson. “He’s never rattled. He just sees the court differently than I’ve seen in a while.”  

On the road to improving to 9-2 on the season, USC shot 49 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range. Even 6-foot-11 senior forward Nick Rakocevic hit one from the outside, splashing a first-half corner 3. Rakocevic contributed nicely for USC, shooting an efficient 3-of-4 from the field and snagging six rebounds in 29 minutes.

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Mathews hit his first two 3-point attempts, following a team-high 20-point outing in USC’s win over TCU. Mathews finished with 18 points, knocking down five of his nine shots from beyond the arc.

“History shows, freshman year to now, I always start off slow,” Mathews said. “I don’t shoot well the first couple of games and then it’ll take one game for me to really just lock in and feel the flow again.”

USC graduate transfer Daniel Utomi, who entered Sunday afternoon shooting 24 percent from 3-point land, also nailed his first two perimeter shots. Utomi brought solid energy off the USC bench, taking a charge as the Trojans led by seven points early in the first half.

Long Beach State (3-8) was led by sophomore guard Chance Hunter, who scored 18 points on over 53 percent shooting from the field.

“[Hunter] went scoreless his last game, he was their leading scorer averaging 15 so we knew he’d come in here and try to score,” Enfield said. “He made some tough shots.”

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Beach also shot well from the outside, netting 39 percent of their 3-point attempts.

“Teams shoot a lot, like Long Beach shot 28 on [USC] … they made 11,” Enfield said. “I was a little upset in the first half because some of their shooters, our guards were there but they didn’t challenge their shot with a sense of urgency to run them off the line and make them put it on the floor.”

The Trojans edged Beach in team assists, free throw percentage, rebounds and bench points. Next up, Long Beach State returns to the pyramid for a date with Southern Utah on Dec. 19. 

USC freshman Isaiah Mobley caught a no-look bounce pass from graduate transfer Quinton Adlesh and dunked over Beach 6-foot-11 freshman center Joshua Morgan to ignite the crowd, as USC led by 13 points in the second half. USC scored 42 points in the paint and 17 second chance points. 

A nearby neutral site matchup with LSU (7-2) awaits USC at Staples Center on Dec. 21.

“An SEC school, that’ll be a top tier win for us,” Mathews said. “Beating them would definitely help our resume down in March.”

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