Although a shot at a Pac-10 postseason title is Arizona's tangible takeaway from its 67-62 victory over USC, Friday's semi-finals game in Staples Center had a lot more on the line than a possible automatic bid, especially for a team that's already a lock for the Big Dance.
It was about silencing Kevin O'Neill. It was about keeping the Trojans out of the NCAA Tournament. It was about avenging the Wildcats' recent loss to USC. It was about Derrick Williams winning the personal battle with Nikola Vucevic.
Arizona certainly didn't play its best basketball, and USC showed a ton of fight, but not only did the Wildcats earn a spot in the Pac-10 Championship game against the winner of tonight's Oregon/Washington matchup, they won all of those mini-battles along the way.
O'Neill, who was suspended for the Pac-10 Tournament for his late-night verbal altercation with Arizona booster Paul Weitman, has been playing mind games with the Wildcats all season long.
Whether it was talking up Arizona as a national contender or claiming Derrick Williams was getting the Michael Jordan treatment from the referees, O'Neill has tried to force his way into the Wildcats' psyche. It worked near the end of the regular season when the Trojans edged Arizona and Williams played his worst game of the season.
But this time O'Neill embarrassed himself with his antics, and Arizona's play gave Weitman bragging rights as O'Neill watched Bob Cantu run his team from afar.
What a 24 hours for Arizona's former coach. Thursday O'Neill was enjoying a nice victory over Cal, but since that time he's made national news (not the good kind) and most likely watched his team's NCAA Tournament hopes come to an end.
The last time Arizona was in LA the Wildcats were swept by USC and UCLA as they played unmotivated and uninspired. Although Arizona still has some clear weaknesses -- interior defense is public enemy No. 1 -- the Wildcats have fared well in LA so far and their poise is growing with every game.
The first half was back in forth, but Arizona cemented its place in the driver seat with a 50-38 lead and 10:45 remaining in the game. Vucevic and the Trojans, however, chipped away at the lead and got within three with 2:58 left.
Vucevic, who finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds, scored 10 points during that eight-minute stretch and the Trojans had all of the momentum. But the Wildcats weren't flustered, as Jamelle Horne drilled a cold-blooded three from the corner with the shot-clock winding down to give Arizona a cushion.
Arizona followed up the three with a great offensive possession that ended in a Williams alley-oop dunk. The Wildcats are young, but they showcased a level of poise beyond their years that could be a big difference maker in the Big Dance.
As for the Williams-Vucevic battle, Arizona's star wasn't extraordinary, but he edged his Pac-10 foe in the scoring department and finished with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Vucevic did, however, rack up his 21st double-double of the season while Williams gave up a handful of offensive rebounds -- Vucevic and Alex Stepheson combined for seven offensive boards.
Arizona threw constant double-teams at Vucevic and he struggled handling the pressure until late in the game. The Wildcats certainly didn't make a statement with a blowout victory, but they came up with the necessary plays to win the game.
The victory and a shot at the Pac-10 postseason title is the most important takeaway from Friday night's semi-final game, but Arizona's moral victories is what has the Wildcats grinning from ear to ear.
O'Neill is sulking, the Trojans most likely won't be NCAA Tournament-bound, Williams got the best of Vucevic and although every UA player has silenced his Twitter account until season's end, Arizona is #winning.