LOS ANGELES -- It has been a while since USC associate head coach Bob Cantu was the head coach of a basketball team.
Fifteen years, to be exact -- and that was as a JV head coach in his hometown of San Luis Obispo. But when USC head coach Kevin O'Neill was suspended Friday afternoon by Trojans athletic director Pat Haden for his role in an altercation with an opposing booster that took place Thursday night, Cantu took the reins of the squad for which he has served as an assistant coach for the last 10 seasons.
And, going against the class of the Pac-10 in No. 16 Arizona, Cantu's Trojans (19-14) held their own until the final minutes, eventually falling short, 67-62, to the Wildcats in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
“That was unbelievable, in my eyes," said USC guard Jio Fontan, who had seven points and five assists in 28 minutes. "To be honest, I didn’t expect him to do the job he did today. I knew myself, as a leader, I was gonna go out there and try to lead my team -- but Coach Cantu today, that was almost unreal.
"That’s one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever dealt with, throwing a coach into the fire to face a top 15 team just on the fly, two hours before the game."
Cantu said he learned he'd coach the game at 3 p.m., three hours before tip-off. He made plentiful use of his fellow assistants -- Dieter Horton was in charge of substitutions, Tony Miller called out defensive assignments and strength coach Shaun Brown focused on Nikola Vucevic -- but Cantu was the play-caller and the guy in charge of the huddle.
And his players, from Fontan and Vucevic to seniors Alex Stepheson and Marcus Simmons, praised his performance.
"He didn’t show us any sign of fear, any sign of confusion or anything," Fontan said. "He was ready for the moment. He didn’t try to be KO, he was himself. He was different. He was real confident in himself, and I think that’s what made the team go the way we did today."
Simmons led USC with a career-high 20 points. Vucevic eventually put things together after a four-point first half to finish with 16 points and 12 rebounds, and Stepheson added eight. USC gave up a quiet 20 to Derrick Williams, the conference's Player of the Year, and 11 to forward Jesse Perry, but the rest of the Wildcats' scoring was spread out.
Arizona (27-6) won by troubling and doubling Vucevic, not allowing him to go off for 25 points the way he did in a USC win last month at the Galen Center. And, in a similar situation down the stretch to the last game, the Wildcats toughened up late when the Trojans made a run and used a huge 3-pointer from senior Jamelle Horne to seal the game.
Player of the game: Simmons wasn't just the Trojans' defensive stopper on this night -- he was USC's best source of offense. The senior swingman shot 8-of-11 from the field -- including 3-of-4 from 3-point range -- as he penalized the Wildcats again and again for leaving him untended during their defensive switches.
Arizona coach Sean Miller purposefully left him open to double USC's bigger threat, Vucevic, and he said afterward he'd do it again despite how Simmons responded.
"To Marcus Simmons' credit, I know he hasn't made a lot of threes, but I think he equaled his season total against us," Miller said. "That's what seniors do. You could tell he was playing with a lot at stake.
"He answered the bell on a couple of open threes."
Simmons, named the Pac-10's Defensive Player of the Year on Monday, got into a groove Thursday with his buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of the first half, and it held through to Friday's game.
"I'm a defensive player, for one," Simmons said afterward. "They were leaving me open, and I just want to take good shots. If I felt like I was uncomfortable shooting the shot, I didn't shoot. I just wanted to play within the offense. And tonight I was just lucky to knock down shots."
Stat of the game: The Trojans shot 49 percent from the field, the best they've shot in a loss all season. This game wasn't an offensive issue and it wasn't really a defensive issue, either.
Arizona was a bit better. Arizona's game plan was a bit better -- or at least a bit better executed. And Arizona's depth was a lot better. Ten Wildcats played at least seven minutes; only six Trojans played more than one minute.
Quote of the game: "Well, my philosophy is when you're selecting 68 teams, you're trying to find the best 68 to compete for a national title. If you saw us play throughout the season you'd have to say we're one of those teams. Why are we one of those teams, because we've shown we can beat good teams. We have seven top 100 wins." -- Cantu
I asked Cantu after the game for his best sales pitch to the NCAA selection committee. That's how he began it, adding further information later about the Trojans' big wins -- against Texas and at Tennessee, he said specifically -- and about Friday's loss being a good loss.
Arizona's Miller, speaking without prompt, said he felt the Trojans deserved to be in the NCAA tournament: "Hopefully everybody reflects on their entire season without Jio Fontan for the first 10 games and that they have an opportunity to be in the tournament that they deserve to be in, and that is the NCAA tournament."
Notes: In attendance was Los Angeles Clippers guard Eric Gordon alongside his agent, Rob Pelinka. The Clippers lost in overtime in New Jersey on Friday night, but Gordon is home because of an injured wrist. ... USC freshman point guard Maurice Jones recorded one steal, giving him first place on USC's all-time list for freshmen. He's also now third on the school's all-time single-season list. ... Miller was asked if he thought O'Neill being out made any sort of difference Friday: "No, I thought that their coaching staff did an excellent job. They had an opportunity to win a very hard fought game."
Cantu, Vucevic and Simmons addressed the media afterward. See some of what the three had to say: