Even a nonexistent crowd got loud for Evan Mobley.
When the star freshman reached up with a lanky right arm to a catch a lob pass and slam it down five minutes into his USC debut, drawing an artificial cheer from the Galen Center audio system, it seemed like a sign that this season could maintain a shred of normality amid a pandemic. No matter the circumstances, it looks like the Trojans can rely on Mobley.
Mobley, the No.1 recruit in the country, was the featured attraction during USC’s season opener, but his college debut was nearly soured by sharp-shooting Cal Baptist, which pushed the Trojans to overtime before Mobley helped secure a 95-87 overtime win Wednesday.
Fans barred from Galen Center during the COVID-19 pandemic likely won’t catch a glimpse of Mobley in person at USC as his college career is destined to be a short one. Even before he scored 21 points with nine rebounds and three blocks Wednesday, he was already a predicted lottery pick for the 2021 NBA draft.
In his debut, he showed off his vast skills, sinking a hook shot for his first USC points, following it with a three-pointer and dishing an assist to his older brother Isaiah, who turned it into a dunk. That was all in the first half.
“Evan played a solid game,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Defensively, he turned it up late in the game and in overtime. He needs to be more active, which I think he understands. … He’s going to watch that film tomorrow and become a better defender just in one day.”
Mobley grabbed eight of his nine rebounds in the second half and overtime, but the Trojans (1-0) struggled with the Lancers, a team just three years removed from Division II, who bombarded USC with three-pointers.
But he was held to just four points in the second half, as the Trojans (1-0) were forced to work overtime against a team that three years ago was in Division II.
Unable to challenge Mobley in the paint, Cal Baptist (0-1) was 19 for 40 from three-point range Wednesday and shot at a 64.3% clip in the second half. The Lancers forced a USC timeout after back-to-back three-pointers put Cal Baptist up by five with 4:28 remaining. It was part of a 14-2 scoring run for the Lancers in which USC’s only points came off two free throws.
Redshirt junior Ty Rowell led the Lancers with 32 points including nine made three-pointers. He was the team’s leading returning scorer at 8.1 points per game last year after Cal Baptist lost all five starters from its 21-10 team that finished second in the Western Athletic Conference.
USC guard Tahj Eaddy tied the game with a three-pointer with 47 seconds remaining to force overtime as the Santa Clara transfer finished with 18 points and four assists.
In overtime, Evan Mobley reasserted himself with six points and a key block that contributed to an 8-0 USC run. The freshman put an exclamation point on his night when he grabbed a rebound off his own missed free throw and dunked it with two hands to put the Trojans up by six with 1:26 to go.
The play prompted a boost to the faint drone of artificial crowd noise that filled the empty arena, where signs of the new pandemic-era normal were rampant. In any other year, an overtime win at home may have been a highlight for players to hear the roar of fans. Instead, the silence made for a strange opener.
“Fans don’t get enough credit, I think in all types of basketball at all levels in terms of bringing the energy,” said point guard Ethan Anderson, who finished with 11 points and four assists. “So we had to create our own energy, that’s something that we never had to experience. Usually our fans give us a little bit more energy, but playing without them certainly felt different and I think it worked to the other team’s advantage."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.