Just when Arizona was looking good and fans were getting giddy for a team that plays hard, plays smart and is fun to watch, USC showed up.
And, well, killed the party.
There’s nothing like getting a reality check – even early in the season. But that’s what happened to Arizona Thursday night in McKale Center in an 87-73 loss to the Trojans.
As Arizona coach Sean Miller said his team couldn’t hit a shot or get a stop. And in basketball, that’s the end game.
Arizona had defensive lapses (Just a week after getting praised for its defense) and it couldn’t hit a shot (well two shots) from its guards.
That double caused trouble for Arizona as it fell to 3-2 in the Pac-12 Conference. UA is 9-2 overall. It snapped UA’s four-game win streak.
When Sean Miller opened his press conference he looked down at the stat sheet and said it’s something he doesn’t see too often: an opponent that dominated in the second half as USC did, hitting 21 of 28 shots, many of which were easy baskets near the basket. And if it wasn’t easy baskets it was big shots from beyond the arc.
Arizona couldn’t stop Isiah White who had 22 points and Evan Mobley who had 19 points. They were a one-two punch for the Trojans while Arizona’s main punch was Azuolas Tubelis, who had a career-high 31 points (more on that later).
“Our defense was porous,” Miller said, after rattling off numbers that were impressive for USC. “There may have been times when we were in the right position, but they hit a tough shot. For the most part they got whatever they wanted.”
Mostly a big win and from a team that was predicted to finish 6th in the Pac-12. USC stopped a 10-game losing streak to the Cats in McKale Center.
And Arizona didn’t get much besides Tubelis 31. At least he kept them in the game.
“I feel more comfortable now,” said Tubelis. “(Butt) it’s not a great feeling right now.”
The biggest surprise, however, was UA’s play from its older guards James Akinjo and Jemarl Baker, who combined for three points. That’s no typo. They hit a combined 1 for 15 from the floor, including 0 for 7 from beyond the 3-point line.
“In the Pac-12 it’s going to hard to overcome 1 for 15 from our starting backcourt,” Miller said. “… The loss doesn’t fall on their shoulders at all … if the backcourt goes 1 for 15 that’s an uphill battle. Those guys are better than that, coupled with our inability to get stops. We were overwhelmed.”
In the first half the lead changed a few times before USC settled for a 35-34 lead. The second half started close before USC started to pull away, getting to the rim with ease.
Miller said he wasn’t “going to play the blame game” on Baker and Akinjo.
“They are a terrific backcourt for us, and we’ve won some games because of how good they have been,” Miller said. “We just didn’t have it shooting.”
And against USC you must be good at everything. And Arizona was hardly that – especially on defense. Some of the problems, Miller said, was his team’s offense had its defense a bit flustered.
“That (defense) becomes more difficult when you’re missing shots,” Miller said. “Our missed shots started to affect us. It affected our energy. It affected our cohesiveness. Basketball isn’t fun when you can’t make a shot.”
And yet Miller’s biggest concern – and rightly so – is how his team faded in the end.
“I don’t think we fought to the end,” Miller said. “I thought it became too hard and we were overwhelmed. We gave in down the stretch. It’s something that’s disappointing but it’s something we will clearly fix.”
And, he’ll have to hope that his guards and others help Tubelis on the offensive end. Tubelis, at times, looked like the best player on the floor save for a few moves from Mobley, projected as college basketball’s second-best player.
“Azuolas was terrific,” Miller said. “I hope he can bounce (back) and have another good game … He had 31 points against a good defensive team. I thought he was outstanding. If he didn’t play that way, it would have been more lopsided.”