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Poor late-game execution dooms Wildcats against Trojans

Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry always says that there are four or five plays that are the difference in any game.

The team that cashes in on those four or five plays more often than not comes out on top. 

Arizona basketball has been on the winning end of several ball games because of those game-defying plays, and Sean Miller said last Tuesday that those mini-victories are the difference between a good season and a "special season."

They did the little things necessary to sneak past Washington, take down Cal in triple overtime and win four games by two points or less.

But in Galen Arena against a very beatable USC team, the Wildcats crumbled in crunch time on their way to a 65-57 loss. 

Thursday night's performance was undoubtedly Arizona's worst of the season, but USC wasn't much better as both teams sleepwalked their way to the finish line. But when the Wildcats needed a gut-check play, they came up empty handed. 

Arizona held a slim margin for the majority of the game, and led 56-54 with 2:47 remaining in the game.

But Arizona went 3-of-6 from the free-throw line in the last 3:23 and failed to do the little things that vaulted them into first place in the Pac-10. Here are five plays in the final three minutes that kept Arizona from fending off USC:

 

  • Jesse Perry, who led the Wildcats with 12 points, missed his second free-throw attempt with 2:47 remaining and Vucevic comes down and makes both of his free throws to tie the game at 56 with 2:37 left. If Perry makes both, Arizona's up one. 
  • Momo Jones, who finished with nine points on 3-of-12 shooting, had a somewhat open layup but didn't get enough separation from the defender and had it blocked by Alex Stephason with 2:21 left. The Trojans went the other way and Stephason knocked down two free throws to take a 58-56 lead. If Momo converts and Perry makes his free throw, Arizona's up one. 
  •  Jones has his shot blocked again, this time with Marcus Simmons flying in from behind to send the layup off the glass with 1:28 remaining. Jones had no one around him but put up a soft, methodical layup that he could have easily converted by going hard to the hoop. If Momo goes strong, the Wildcats lead by three. But instead Vucevic came down and made two free throws to give USC a 60-56 lead. 
  • Kyle Fogg, who scored five points on 1-for-6 shooting while committing two turnovers, missed the first of two free throws with 40 seconds remaining. Fogg had a chance to cut the USC lead to two, but instead the Trojans led by three, which turned out to be a difference maker as Jio Fontan missed one of two free throws with 32 second left. If Fogg hit both, UA would have had a chance to tie down three with 32 seconds left, but it was a two-possession game instead and Arizona never got within striking distance. 
  • Arizona had one last to chance to get within striking distance, down 61-57 with the ball and 32 seconds remaining. Kevin Parrom, who finished with 10 points, drove hard to the hoop and missed a wide-open layup with 22 seconds. The layup would have cut it to two but Arizona shouldn't have even been in that position if it made free throws and converted layups.
The Wildcats can salvage their trip with a win over UCLA on Saturday, but they're going to need to regain their late-game execution if they hope to do so. As Gentry said, four or five plays decide the winner, and Arizona didn't come up with the plays they needed Thursday night against USC.