With 5:30 left in regulation, USC seemed to have things wrapped up against No. 7 Arizona. The Trojans were up 12 and the Wildcats couldn't get a stop. The first big win of the Trojans' season -- the first legitimacy-proving victory for a team whose 13-3 start was regarded with at least some suspicion -- was close at hand.
It would end up taking four overtimes, dozens of lead changes, 204 total points and 60 thrilling total minutes of basketball for the Trojans to prove their emergent chops. Saturday's 103-101 win wasn't as easy as it might have been, but it was a win after all -- and one that highlighted once more a struggling young Arizona team's most significant, and surprising, flaw.
Arizona's defense is (still) struggling
On Thursday night, UCLA guard Bryce Alford handed the Wildcats' their first Pac-12 loss with a cool step-back 3. Former Bruins guard and current Oklahoma City Thunder megastar Russell Westbrook was sitting courtside, just a few feet away, and most of the postgame reaction fixated on Westbrook's presence.
Arizona coach Sean Miller had a different take.
"This is the worst defensive team that I've coached at Arizona since my first year," Miller said Thursday. "The last shot of the game is a reflection of that. We didn't [want to] switch Kaleb Tarczewski onto Bryce Alford. You literally have to be out of your mind to do that."
"Worst defensive team" and "literally out of your mind" might sound like heat-of-the-moment overreactions. Except that Miller wasn't exaggerating, not really, not where the Wildcats' early Pac-12 performance is concerned.
Arizona arrived at the Galen Center on Saturday night having allowed its first two conference opponents -- Arizona State and UCLA -- to score 1.20 points per possession combined. That ranked dead last in the Pac-12. For comparison's sake, the 2014-15 Wildcats allowed just 0.87 points per possession in league play; the 2013-14 team allowed 0.91.
This sudden turnaround was in evidence again Saturday, when the Trojans scored 1.12 points per trip across the game's 60 minutes. USC didn't shoot the lights out (43 percent from the field) or grab a bunch of second chances on the offensive glass. But Arizona's lack of perimeter pressure forced the Trojans into only 12 turnovers on (something like) 91 possessions, and USC shot 33 free throws (and made 26) to only 16 for the Wildcats.
Every time it looked as if Arizona might gain a slight edge -- late in regulation, or in any of the key stretches in the four overtimes it took to decide the game -- USC would come back on the other end and get the bucket it needed to keep things even. The final, deciding USC possession of the fourth overtime was symbolic: The Wildcats worked hard to stop the Trojans' initial penetration, turning driver Julian Jacobs into a rotating Tarczewski, who swatted his shot out of bounds. And then, after the inbound, Justin Simon forced USC guard Elijah Stewart into an almost impossible fadeaway jumper ... only to foul the shooter and give up the two free throws Stewart would use to bury the win once and for all.
Big stops were the exception for Arizona, not the rule. Which, compared to most of Miller's teams, is an exception unto itself.
USC badly needed this win
Statistically speaking, the Trojans entered Saturday looking like one of the best 35 or so teams in the country in 2015-16. The problem, of course, was that they lacked the wins to show for it.
USC's best win came over Wichita State on Nov. 26, but an injury to star Shockers guard Fred VanVleet took much of the shine off that win. A loss to Monmouth on Nov. 29 didn't help. And last Sunday, Andy Enfield's team yielded a 22-point margin at Washington in an eventual 87-85 loss, prompting Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar to call the night "magical."
All of this belied a team that was shooting 41.1 percent from 3 and holding opponents to just 41.6 percent shooting inside the arc. There was never any question that Enfield's third team was much better than the 12-20 group he had a year ago. The question was how much better. Saturday's win -- in which USC just kept pushing, possession after possession, across an exhausting four-overtime thriller -- might not rouse any Pac-12 title predictions. But it does prove that Enfield's team is at least a strong NCAA tournament possibility. It proves that USC is real.
Arizona shouldn't feel too bad
The Wildcats surely didn't expect to return from the Los Angeles cycle of their Pac-12 schedule with two losses. And it is disheartening to see defensive devolution from a team that got stop after stop in a road win at Gonzaga just weeks ago.
Still, there are positives here. For one, Arizona wasn't nearly as bad on the defensive end as it was at UCLA (or even in its win over Arizona State). For another, freshman Allonzo Trier (25 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals) was great.
Most of all, Arizona was coming off a tough, close road loss at UCLA. It was playing on two days rest. It was playing a good team. It could have folded down 12 in regulation, and it could have folded at any point in four overtimes.
That it didn't is small consolation for a program with such high perennial expectations, but it's consolation all the same. Miller will be far happier with this effort than the one his team gave Thursday, that's for sure.