Rakocevic takes charge as USC tops Florida Gulf Coast
LOS ANGELES (AP) — While it was the exuberance of “Dunk City” that ultimately led Andy Enfield to Southern California as head coach, it was his team’s steady senior leadership Sunday that earned a victory over his former program.
Without leading scorer and rebounder Onyeka Okongwu, USC still had plenty of production, getting 19 points and 13 rebounds from senior Nick Rakocevic and 13 points from senior Daniel Utomi in a 71-58 victory over Florida Gulf Coast.
In the 2013 NCAA Tournament, Enfield’s Florida Gulf Coast team was the talk of the nation as it dunked and soared its way into the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed. Less than one year later, he was USC’s head man.
In the first ever meeting of Enfield’s former program and his current one, it was a more grounded and steady hand that was the difference. Afterward, the coach downplayed the meeting of his past and present.
“It was fun to see them, but when the game started, you have a game to play and it could have been anybody down there,” Enfield said. “The jerseys didn’t matter to me at that point. But it is nice to see familiar faces.”
Enfield was 41-28 in two seasons at Florida Gulf Coast and is 216-120 at USC.
Jonah Mathews added 10 points for the Trojans (11-2), who won their fifth consecutive game. Okongwu was dealing with a mild ankle sprain, but is expected to be available for the start of Pac-12 Conference play on Thursday. He participate in the team’s shootaround earlier Sunday.
Sam Gagliardi scored 10 points for the Eagles (3-12), who lost for the seventh time in their last eight games. Caleb Catto scored nine first-half points for Florida Gulf Coast, but did not score after halftime. The Eagles also were closing out their nonconference schedule.
“There were a few unforced errors and some things that we could have controlled better,” said Eagles head coach Michael Fly, who was an assistant on Enfield’s staff before he left for USC. “We could have played smarter and harder.”
The Eagles got off to a hot start in their only scheduled trip to the West Coast, grabbing a 7-1 lead. USC didn’t make its first field goal until a Mathews 3-pointer nearly three minutes into the game.
USC immediately went on an 11-0 run to take a 12-7 lead and never trailed again, taking a 35-31 lead into halftime while shooting 43% from the field in the first half, but just 27% from 3-point range.
The Trojans shot 46% from the field in the game, while holding the Eagles to 41%.
“We were shorthanded without (Okongwu) and missed his presence down low,” Rakocevic said after recording his fifth double-double. “It was a game we knew we had to knock out before focusing on the conference. I think we’re good. The freshmen are playing exceptionally well and we’re more fluid now.”
There were plenty of areas where Florida Gulf Coast did match up well with USC like their 14 steals compared to 11 for their opponent. The Eagles also had 16 assists to USC’s 17 and led in bench points 27-25.
“As a coach I’m very encouraged because we proved we can play well against teams (from top conferences),” Fly said.
USC held a 37-32 rebounding advantage and had 14 fast-break points to just two for the Eagles. FGCU committed 17 fouls to just six for the Trojans. The Eagles attempted just six free throws, making one.
“Obviously with ‘Big O’ out, other players had to step up,” said Utomi, who played 23 minutes off the bench and reached a season-high in points. “Players like me, and players who can play both (forward) positions just had to toughen it out and come out with a win.”
Florida Gulf Coast: Struggling to score all season, the Eagles did not reach their average of 61.1 points on the season. … The Eagles are now 0-7 in road games this season. … FGCU will play host to USC next season with Sunday’s game the first ever between the programs.
USC: The Trojans now have two winning streaks of five games this season, the third time they have accomplished that feat over the last decade, while also doing it in 2016 and 2017. … Rakocevic was 2 of 2 from 3-point range and is now 7 of 10 on the season after entering 0 of 4 in his career. … Enfield made one NCAA Tournament appearance as head coach at FGCU in 2013 and has made two appearances at USC in 2016 and 2017.
Florida Gulf Coast: The Eagles open Atlantic Sun Conference play Thursday at home against Liberty.
USC: The Trojans open Pac-12 Conference play Thursday at Washington State.