This won’t go down as the best game of Isaiah Mobley’s generally impressive junior season, and yet it was pretty reflective all the same of his development into the leader of one of the top teams in college basketball so far.
Mobley had just turned the ball over near the perimeter, and Oregon State had scored on the other end to retake the lead with less than 4 minutes to play, as Warith Alatishe eventually tipped in the score after four other hands had kept the rebound afloat like a volleyball.
Mobley had been quiet offensively all game, starting just 1 of 7 from the field, but on that ensuing possession he drew a fifth foul on Alatishe — knocking Oregon State’s best player out of the game — while getting to the line for two successful free throws and a one-point Trojans lead.
The Beavers’ Jarod Lucas, who had torched the nets from 3-point range all night, misfired on a long air ball, and Mobley went back to work. With the Trojans unable to find a clean look from the outside, he worked his way into the paint and scored. After another Oregon State miss, it was Mobley again, backing down his defender, spinning and dropping in a short jump hook.
Just like that, after trailing by as many as 10 points in the second half, No. 5-ranked USC had a 5-point lead with just over 2 minutes remaining on the way to an 81-71 win inside a quiet Galen Center on Thursday night, as fans were not permitted due to ongoing COVID protocols.
Mobley finished with just 11 points and 7 rebounds (plus 4 assists, 4 blocks and 2 steals), but that final flurry was emblematic of his evolution as a college basketball player — one who is now capable of putting the team on his back when he knows that’s what needs to be done.
“I knew it was kind of like an ugly game, especially on our side, so I just like, whenever I felt like I had good opportunities or I could get someone else open I just felt like I had to do something. And my team trusts me down the stretch and I contributed,” Mobley said. “Not going to lie, running on fumes, but you’ve just got to grind it out.”
It’s been an unusual last month for the Trojans, who went 19 days between games due to COVID-related cancellations and postponements, returned with back-to-back road trips to the Bay Area and now are in the middle of a stretch of three games in five days that continues Saturday night at home against Oregon.
But after taking their first loss of the season Tuesday night at Stanford, the Trojans (14-1, 4-1 Pac-12) played like a team that knew it needed to find a way — some way — to win this one against a spunky Oregon State team (3-12, 1-4) that was playing far better than its record.
They did that with a resurgent second-half on both ends of the floor, Mobley’s late contributions and a defining performance from veteran forward Chevez Goodwin, who finished with a team-high 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting with 12 rebounds, including 9 offensive boards.
Drew Peterson chipped in 17 points and 7 boards, and Boogie Ellis scored 14 points in the win.
Goodwin and Mobley have been the stories of this season, though — both dramatically improved from last year — and in different ways they were the catalysts again Thursday night.
“He’s just relentless,” Enfield said of Goodwin. “And a crucial rebound in the second half, he went way out of his area and just got it over two people. He did that most of the night. He’s just relentless. I thought this was one of his most impressive games as a Trojan, just the way he battled.”
As for Mobley …
“We kept going to him in those last four minutes, we called four or five straight plays for him and he took it upon himself one time to dribble it in, post up,” Enfield said. “He’s such a good passer that if you dig or double-team him he usually hits the open man. You saw he hit Reece for that big 3 and Chevez underneath a couple times, and then he decided to score the ball himself. That’s the type of effort we need and leadership we need from him, and he’s really evolved as a player. Even though he struggled offensively for the first 35, 36 minutes, when it mattered most he came up big.”
Mobley leads USC with 15.1 points and 9.2 rebounds per game — up from 9.9 and 7.3 last season — while Goodwin is averaging 13.4 points and 7.1 rebounds, which is way up from 5.6 PPG and 3.5 RPG a season ago.
“My thing was just to bring energy as much as I could,” Goodwin said.
And USC needed it after trailing most of the game. Early on, the Trojans were having trouble getting the ball inside with just 12 points in the paint in the first half. More of an issue was the defense, which had allowed the Beavers to shoot 57.7 percent in the half, including 6 of 9 from 3-point range, while taking a 42-37 halftime lead.
Oregon State would push that advantage to 51-41 in the opening minutes of the second half.
Enfield thought part of the struggle was simply that the Beavers were hitting shots at a higher clip than usual. Lucas, for example, would finish with a season-high 27 points while going 6-of-10 on 3s.
As the game progressed, Enfield felt his defense clamped down and did a better job getting out on shooters more quickly, while the offense started to get the production it needed from the backcourt.
“Our guards have to play well for us to win. Our guards didn’t play well against Stanford and we lost. Tonight they played much better. As the game went along they started sharing the ball more, they started hitting the open man,” he said. “We had a lot of guys open early in the game and they didn’t get the ball, so our guards have to score when they’re open, they have to shoot it, and when they’re not they have to penetrate and make plays for teammates. So I thought we did a better of job of that and we scored in the second half 44 points.”
The Trojans were down 9 when they mounted their comeback, launching a 17-3 run early in the second half to pull ahead 62-57.
Goodwin scored 9 points in that flurry.
After a steal and layup by Ellis got the run started, Goodwin threw down an emphatic putback dunk off a miss from Ethan Anderson and then grabbed another offensive rebound in traffic and scored again.
Following a dunk by Lucas for Oregon State, Goodwin scored on a fastbreak layup, freshman Reese Dixon-Waters sandwiched 4 free throws around a Peterson jumper, and after a Beavers free throw, Goodwin capped the run with a layup and free throw set up by a smooth pass from Mobley down low.
“I couldn’t ask for a better front-[court partner],” Goodwin said of Mobley. “… We’re getting to learn each other every single game, and he’s probably the best big-man passer I’ve ever played with, honestly. I’ve played with a lot of good big men, but he’s probably the best passer I’ve ever played with so I just have to keep my hands ready.”
Again, though, the game wasn’t over yet at that point.
The teams traded baskets and then Lucas hit back-to-back 3s to tie it at 65-65 with 7:18 remaining.
Goodwin followed with a dunk, Roman Silva scored for the Beavers, Peterson dropped in a 3-pointer for USC, and Oregon State scored the next 4 points, including that Alatishe tip-in, before Mobley’s spurt helped swing the game for good.
“We did what we had to do late in the game to get the victory, so very proud of our guys the way they battled,” Enfield said. “Offensively, we were just OK, but we made some big shots down the stretch and came away with a very important win.”
Enfield said his team is still shaking off some rust from all the lost practice time during their COVID-shutdown and that 19-day gap between games.
“We lost so much practice time. We are a little rusty, especially on the offensive end at times. We had 19 days between games. I know we played pretty well vs. Cal, but we lost so much practice time that some of our defensive concepts that we drill all the time and our offensive things we run … we had to go up to the Bay, come back here, go up to the Bay again,, now we’ve got three games in five days so we haven’t had a lot of practice time and I think that’s hurt us,” he said. “But there’s no excuses. We have to figure this out quickly. … I think we’re right there, but the lack of practice time has really hurt us.”
Beyond the headliners, one of the other key takeaways from the game was the boost provided by Dixon-Waters, the freshman who scored 9 points in just 18 minutes while going 6-for-6 at the foul line. That matched his season-high for scoring, but he had scored just 2 points since mid-December before this breakout.
“Minutes are earned on this roster, and he sure earned some minutes,” Enfield said. “He played great — very tough defensively, he hit a big 3, made all his free throws and he’s a very smart basketball player. This is his best game as a Trojan. He’s getting better and better.”
Said Mobley: “I’ve been in his ear all season — ‘It’s going to come, I can’t tell you when it’s going to come, but it’s going to come, so just stay ready’ — and he did that.”