Los Angeles, CA – The Arizona Wildcats rolled into the Galen Center on Thursday night riding a 10 game winning streak taking down the USC Trojans 73-66 and holding the 14th spot in the latest NCAA Top 25 Rankings.
The last time these two teams met in Los Angeles it took four overtime periods to finally decide a winner. This time around it seemed people were expecting something similar. Although it is tinsel town, the stars don’t always come out to college basketball games, but tonight there was some basketball royalty in the house. Lakers star, former Trojan, Nick Young was in attendance, as was current Lakers coach, and former Arizona Wildcat Luke Walton. Also courtside was legendary University of Arizona coach Lute Olson.
Once the game got underway both teams got off to sluggish starts. USC opened the game in a loose 2-3 zone defense, almost daring the Wildcats to shoot from behind the arc. Arizona is a high percentage 3-point shooting team, but they are not a high volume shooting team. The strategy seemed to work for USC in the first half, as the Wildcats shot 5-14 from long range, and 44% from the field. Arizona was clearly frustrated with their inability to get to the basket due to the interior zone presence, being held to only 29 points in the first half was not what coach Miller was hoping for.
USC coach, Andy Enfield was very pleased with his teams’ defense in the first half, heaping high praise on his players during the postgame press conference. Enfield expressed his pleasure with the physical play and execution of the zone defense. He also, however, lamented the fact that his team was unable to hit many open shots during the first half. The Trojans were held to a season low 19 points in the opening half. It wasn’t until 17 minutes into the game before USC hit their first three-point shot of the game, after going 0-8 to start. When the teams entered their respective locker rooms at halftime, Arizona seemed to have control of the game. They didn’t shoot particularly well, but still managed to hold a 10 point lead with no signs of USC’s offense having much life.
Picking up where they had left off, the Wildcats began the second half on a 15-2 run, stretching their lead to 44-21, and at this point it appeared the route was on. However, with about eleven minutes remaining in the game, USC guard Elijah Stewart was called for a flagrant 1 foul after he swung violently for a block, nearly knocking an opposing players’ head off. In Elijah’s defense, he was upset over a missed call on the previous play, which became a theme throughout the night. After being tagged with a flagrant, Elijah seemed to be inspired. He scored 15 points in the second half, including back to back three-balls to help USC get back in the game. Stewart’s backcourt mate Jordan McLaughlin also stepped up late in the second half, hitting his own pair of three point shots to help USC get in a position to pull off the incredible comeback. After trailing by 23, the Trojans were within 10 with 3:35 remaining in the game when Stewart skied for an incredible put-back dunk, drawing a foul in the process.
As the game entered its final two minutes the fans were on their feet, the Trojans had clawed their way back, and were only down by 4 with 1:50 left in the game. Arizona found themselves scrabbling for a shot as the shot clocked whittled down to its final few seconds. That is when Arizona super-freshman Lauri Markkanen came to the rescue. Hitting what USC coach Montgomery called “the back breaker.” Markkanen pulled up from well behind the three point line and banked in what would ultimately be a dagger to the Trojans. Markkanen would finish the game with 23 points to lead all scorers, and add to his already impressive NBA resume.
With the win Arizona picks up its eleventh straight victory, improving their record to 16-2 on the season. With the loss USC drops to 16-4 this season. These two teams will meet again in Tucson on February 23.