By Devin Voss | @DevinVoss23
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — It has been five years since Isaiah White started his collegiate basketball career at Salt Lake Community College. While White helped lead Damien High School to a 25-6 record as a senior, he picked up little to no interest from recruiters, forcing him to take the long route to achieve his goals. The long route paid off as he scored a team high 22 points, helping his USC Trojans capture their first Elite 8 berth since 2001 and second since 1954.
“We did a lot of research on him, talked to about 10 or 15 people,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said on recruiting White. “They all just raved about him as a quality individual. And he has exceeded all our expectations. He’s just the energy guy and what a nice young man…we’re all just so proud of him.”
As a freshman at Salt Lake, White averaged a team leading 12.8 points per game while also posting 6.8 rebounds. After redshirting in 2017-18, White transferred to Utah Valley where he continued to find success on the court. Between his junior and senior season with the Wolverines, he upped his points per game average by six going from 8.5 to 14.5. He also grabbed 8.4 rebounds. This season as a fifth-year senior for USC, White finally got to show his skills on the Power 5 level. He averages 7.3 points per game and scored a season high 22 points on January 7 against Arizona.
But the 22 points Sunday night, on the biggest stage, meant all that much more.
“I’m just living in the moment,” White said. “I’m just having fun and enjoying right now.”
White played an essential role in the 82-68 victory over Oregon that advanced the Trojans (25-7) to the West Regional championship game against Gonzaga Tuesday night.
White started the regional semifinal by pouring in 12 points on 66% shooting through 16 minutes. He provided eight of the team’s first 10 points and hit a three which kickstarted a 19-2 run which stretched in total to 24-6 through a matter of 8:34.
“When we start off the game, I feel like the team feeds off my energy,” White said. “So I make sure out the gate I come with that energy and come with that heart. And hopefully it makes everyone else comfortable.”
White is not the only transfer to find success for the Trojans. In fact, heading into the 2021 season, USC only had three returnees. Four of five starters were new to the university this season. Guard Tahj Eaddy made stops at Southeast Missouri State and Santa Clara before finally making his way to USC this season. Drew Peterson, originally from Illinois, played two years at Rice. Trojan star, and leading scorer, Evan Mobley is a freshman. The players, and the coaching staff, were not able to meet each other until late August. It is what makes this run to the Elite 8 special for the Trojans.
“They took a chance to come here and unfortunately we were not able to meet with their parents, their families and them,” Enfield said. “We had a telephone and via Zoom. Once training camp started we had to figure out the strengths and weaknesses because we didn’t know we had never coached these guys before.”
After a bumpy start, the Trojans were able to shoot at a 58% clip at halftime, holding Oregon to 30% and outrebounding the Ducks 19-14. A predominantly man-to-man defensive team throughout the season, the Trojans’ zone defense made another appearance in the tournament, serving as an effective weapon.
“We played three similar teams, meaning they had four guards or forwards at least, sometimes five in the game, where they tried to dribble-drive us,” Enfield said. “They shoot a lot of threes, so we went to zone in this tournament out of necessity because we’re big.”
Oregon was unable to hit open 3-pointers, which is the look that usually breaks a zone. At halftime, the Ducks were 3 for 12 and by the game’s end, they were 5 for 21.
“I let the guys down,” Dana Altman, Oregon head coach, said. “I didn’t have them ready for that zone. I thought we were, but their length and athleticism really bothered us. And we just didn’t have good ball movement.”
USC would finish the game shooting 57% and a scorching hot 59% from distance. Oregon made a final effort, going on an 11-0 run to pull within nine with 3:52 left, but a three by Eaddy and an ensuing posterizing dunk by Mobley sealed the Ducks’ fate. Eaddy finished with 20 points while Mobley had a terrific all-around game, notching 10 points, eight boards, six assists, and two blocks.
“I do want to mention one thing here, Evan Mobley was our fourth-leading scorer tonight, but he had six assists, and against Kansas he was our fifth-leading scorer and he had five assists,” Enfield said. “He leads us with that. When your most talented offensive player is your most unselfish and willing passer, you can win a lot of games like that.”