Basketball: USC 65, No. 10 Arizona 57
LOS ANGELES -- Nine days ago, at his team's first practice after a disappointing home loss to Oregon that put the Trojans just above .500, USC coach Kevin O'Neill held court with reporters and reasoned that there was no possible way his team would win 18 or 19 games this season.
Now, three games later, it looks as if they're going to do just that.
Thursday, O'Neill's Trojans (16-12, 8-7 in the Pac-10) put together what he termed their most complete game of the season and beat No. 10 Arizona, 65-57, behind 25 points from Nikola Vucevic and 21 points from Jio Fontan and stifling defense on the Wildcats' Derrick Williams and Lamont Jones. With the win, USC moves within two games of the mark O'Neill thought they'd never reach, with at least four games left this season.
It also puts the Trojans once again in the mix -- as a longshot, surely, but still in the mix -- for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, assuming they do win at least two of their three remaining Pac-10 games and get a game or two in the Pac-10 conference tourney. And it sets Arizona quite a bit back in its race for a top seeding in the tourney and gives UCLA a chance to take over the top spot in the conference, or at least share it, with a win over the Wildcats on Saturday.
For his part, O'Neill was focused on what his team did well Thursday -- meaning, most areas of the game, especially in the second half. He also had an eye clearly focused on Saturday's game against Arizona State and next weekend's trip to Washington when speaking about what worked against the Wildcats.
"It's a huge confidence builder," O'Neill said afterward. "We played well tonight, we played hard. We controlled the tempo and we played with poise and confidence down the stretch."
"I hope we can keep this going Saturday."
Williams, who had a season-low eight points on 3-for-11 shooting and three turnovers in 36 minutes, was also very complimentary of the Trojans -- despite his clash with O'Neill earlier in the week about his tendency to get to the free-throw line.
"They are a great team," said Williams, who originally signed with USC out of La Mirada High and had an estimated 100 friends and family members in attendance Thursday at the Galen Center. "Their record may not show it, but they are really good."
Player of the game: With dozens of NBA scouts in attendance to see Williams, a likely lottery pick in June's NBA draft, Vucevic stole the show and posted one of his best performances yet at the collegiate level. He wasn't dominant on defense like he has been on a couple occasions this season, but he had 25 points and 12 rebounds against a very good team and simply dominated Williams when matched up against him on offense.
"Vucevic is really a great player," Williams said afterward, adding that he felt Vucevic's numbers were better than his on the season. "He's top five in the league and a definite NBA guy.
"He should get more credit."
He got a lot more credit than usual from O'Neill afterward. The coach, who's been plenty critical of his young forward at various points in the last two years, noted Vucevic has made significant improvements to his game even in the last three or so weeks.
Fontan, who normally would be a candidate for player of the game with his performance, said Vucevic was the best player in the conference.
"He looks like the most skilled player out there," Fontan said. "I think today he was just more patient than ever, relaxed. He made smart decisions, whether it was throwing out of some double teams or being aggressive in one-on-one matchups."
Stat of the game: USC shot 82 percent from the free-throw line. Alex Stepheson, a 49 percent shooter on the season, made 6-of-7, and Fontan, Vucevic and Stepheson all converted clutch attempts down the stretch.
As a team, the Trojans scored their final 11 points from the line, during which time they went from being down a point to winning by eight. The shots were clearly key.
"It's huge," Vucevic said afterward. "We have to make free throws. Free throws should be like layups for us -- you have to be able to be a team that shoots well at the free-throw line, and tonight we all shot the ball well there, especially Alex."
Quote of the game: "He’s the defensive player of the year. Not only in this conference but in the country. He’s the best one-on-one defender in the whole country." -- O'Neill on USC defensive stopper Marcus Simmons
What Simmons did Thursday was fairly remarkable. He spent most of the game on Lamont 'Momo' Jones, the Arizona point guard who had 17 points on six shots the last time the two teams played in Tucson. Jones was having a significantly tougher time scoring against Simmons, with four points on 1-for-5 shooting at halftime. When Simmons was called on to switch to Jesse Perry midway through the second half when Vucevic had to check out of the game with four fouls, Jones scored five of his nine points and his only assist in the next three minutes and Perry stopped scoring.
Vucevic soon came back in and again began guarding Perry. Jones didn't score again.
Simmons also spent some time guarding Arizona's Kyle Fogg, and he essentially switched seamlessly between the three players, helping to limit the Wildcats' overall offensive production.
Said Simmons: "I feel like I can guard pretty much anybody, so it was pretty cool."
Notes: Los Angeles Clippers Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Randy Foye sat courtside for the game. Griffin visited with the team in the locker room after the game. The Clippers play the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Friday. ... Arizona's 57 points were the fewest the Wildcats have scored all season. Their previous low was 65 points in a December home loss to Brigham Young. ... USC improved to 11-0 on the season when holding opponents to fewer than 60 points and 12-1 when limiting opponents to under 40 percent shooting. ... Arizona had only two assists, which had Arizona coach Sean Miller upset after the game. ... 2,000 fans received O'Neill bobblehead dolls at the game Thursday.
Vucevic talked afterward about his performance, shutting down Williams and the rest of the Wildcats, and coming out with a completely different outcome than the last game between the two teams. See what he had to say: