Arizona Athletics

Rivera: Three thoughts on Arizona Wildcats’ win over USC

Close calls in Los Angeles aren’t a surprise. They happen all the time no matter the situation. It happened again on Thursday despite the game looking like a runaway chase on the 405 Freeway with Arizona taking a 23-point lead.

Eventually, the USC Trojans found their spot on the road and got close. Or at least within one possession with just more than a minute left.

But Arizona survived 73-66 at the Galen Center.

Lauri Markkanen an offensive savior for UA (Arizona Athletics photo)

Arizona is now 17-2 and 6-0 in the Pac-12. It’s the best start since UA went 8-0 in the 2013-14 season.

“We’re excited to win,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said in his postgame radio show. “When you start to take for granted a road win in conference play against a team like USC you’re not going to have very much fun playing, coaching (or) cheering for your team.”

It doesn’t make it any easier for the fans, which have grown weary/tired of UA’s get out then fade out in the end. But at least UA continues to roll.

Here are three things to ponder before UA faces UCLA on Saturday in what is the matchup of the year – well, maybe second to UCLA vs. Oregon earlier this month.

The Finnisher or the Savior?

Lauri Markkanen has been UA’s offensive backbone all season and was at it again Thursday. He finished with 23 points and now has games of 26, 30 and 23 in succession.

Arizona needed every one of his points against USC, including his 20-footer with 33 seconds left. It gave UA just enough cushion to keep the lead and win. He’ll have to continue to do that given the state of affairs of the suspended Allonzo Trier, who has now been out 19 games with no return in sight.

Zones R Not Us

Through the years, including Lute Olson’s time, the zone has been UA’s Achilles’ heel. Arizona hasn’t had a great shooter since Salim Stoudamire, although Markkanen is pretty good. Still, Arizona needs to hit shots on the perimeter to bust zones. Sounds simple enough. It just isn’t.

Figure that UA didn’t get to the line in the first half because of USC’s zone. What UA has done very well this year is get to the line, outscoring opponents by a wide margin. It did, however, go 22 times in the second half, hitting a very good 17.

The free throw line is UA’s friend. It needs to visit that friend often.

Defensive Problems

Sean Miller was in even-keel spirits on his postgame radio show … until he started talking about his team’s recent second-half performances. He brought up last week’s 50-point giveaway vs. Arizona State as an example. Then he brought up giving 47 in the second half against USC, including 42 in 16 minutes.

What to do? What to do? He said it was about effort and attitude and commitment to the defensive end.

“That’s kind of who we are and if that doesn’t change we’re not going to keep holding teams off,” Miller said. “We’re not going to have the lead at the half or the lead at the 10-minute mark. They are going to smash us.”

He said UCLA on Saturday “will make us pay for that” if UA doesn’t get it fixed, given that UCLA can score in spurts quickly.

Miller said there has to be some “accountability to what we are doing.”

That accountability apparently means if UA players don’t get things done they won’t be playing much.

“From this point on if players don’t do that I’m going to take guys out of the game,” he said. “It’s the only way I think it can get corrected.”

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