After a crushing defeat at the hands of Marquette and a tournament record 51 points from Markus Howard (doing his best Steph Curry impersonation) in the Orlando Invitational semifinals, the Trojans came out motivated against Harvard in the consolation bracket. After a pair of poor performances from senior center Nick Rakocevic (averaging 6 points in the tournament and getting ejected early against Marquette), Coach Enfield decided to switch up the starting lineup by inserting much heralded freshman Isaiah Mobley in place of the struggling Rakocevic. The change immediately paid dividends as the improved floor spacing offered by Mobley opened up the paint for star freshman center Onyeka Okongwu to feast early, scoring an early 10 points in the first few minutes of play.
The adjustment had the Trojans up 18-10 with 14:08 in the first. However, a smaller Harvard team relied on their 3-point shooting early to stay in the game, with senior guard Bryce Aiken splashing a pair of early threes to cut the lead to 2 after USC’s hot start. After Okongwu was taken out of the game for a breather, the Trojan offense looked far more disjointed — but senior guard Jonah Matthews was able to score on a couple of strong drives to the basket after struggling in his last game. After a brief respite, Big O came back in and continued his dominance, hitting a beautiful jump hook over his right shoulder after checking back into the game and putting the Trojans up 31-24. Unfortunately, a porous USC defense in combination with poor decision making leading to turnovers let Harvard hit open threes and score in transition. Freshman forward Chris Ledlum hit back-to-back three pointers for the Crimson to put them up 39-38 and take their first lead of the game with four minutes left in the half.
The Trojans continued to try to switch everything on screens, but they continually got lost and missed rotations — leading to an unacceptable number of wide open threes that Harvard continued to capitalize on. Despite the poor defensive performance, the Big O continued his unstoppable offensive outing to keep the Trojans on top. By the end of the half, Okongwu racked up a stunning 21 points and 9 rebounds en route to a 52-43 Trojan lead. USC shot a blazing 60% from the field and 63% from 3 (albeit only taking 8 and making 5), alongside a dominant 21-9 advantage on the boards. Despite that, the lead was only 9 because the Trojans allowed Harvard to score at will from beyond the line — shooting 47% from 3 with 8 makes.
USC came out of the half sloppy, with a pair of turnovers by sophomore guard Elijah Weaver and Jonah Matthews. Fortunately, Harvard would not be out done and had three turnovers themselves. Both offenses looked ugly early, but a 3-point make by graduate transfer Quinton Adlesh had the Trojans up 57-43 with 18 minutes to play. The Trojan defense was much improved coming out of the locker room, locking down the Crimson by forcing tough contested jumpers and creating turnovers. Okongwu grew the lead to 61-45 by throwing down a thunderous dunk that nearly ripped the rim off and then slamming home a beautiful lob from a driving Nick Rakocevic. While Rakocevic’s scoring troubles continued, he made contributions elsewhere on the floor — coming up with a Magic Johnson-esque no look pass to a wide open Quinton Adlesh to splash a 3-pointer. Despite Okongwu sitting on the bench, the Trojans grew their lead with good ball movement and key playmaking from Rakocevic and Mobley in the paint.
With 8:50 to play, the Trojans had smothered Harvard’s offense, holding them to a measly 2 points in 11 minutes of play. Consequently, the lead ballooned to 25 points for a 70-45 USC lead. Okongwu came in to score a layup before ending his monster night with 27 points and 14 rebounds on 12/14 shooting with 4 minutes left to play. Nick Rakocevic continued to struggle finishing around the basket, ending his night with only 9 points on 3/10 shooting. However, he did contribute solid defense and rebounding off the bench with 8 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block. Encouragingly, Quinton Adlesh showed signs of life from 3 after going scoring 12 points and shooting 4/6. Hopefully, this performance gets Adlesh going after a slow 30% shooting split from three to start the season. Ultimately, the Trojans took home a 77-62 victory over Harvard to take 3rd place in the Orlando Invitational. The men’s basketball team fly home with a 2-1 record in the tournament and a mixed bag in terms of their results. Coach Enfield will have a lot of tape to go over with his team (both good and bad) after the terrible Marquette performance and this strong final game against Harvard.