Although the 13-3 Arizona Wildcats jumped out to an early lead and dominated most of the first half, they lost their aggression and allowed the USC Trojans to carry an impressive run over into the second half, and then watched them extend their lead. And just when you thought Arizona couldn’t possibly lose another game in frustrating fashion after they stormed back and put themselves in position to win, well, they did lose in frustrating fashion, after four exhausting overtimes, 103-101.
Let’s just get to the three most important lessons we learned before this writer starts throwing things again.
1. Defense is weak, again
Following the Wildcats’ heart-wrenching loss at UCLA, head coach Sean Miller heavily criticized his team’s defensive performance, and challenged his players to show more fight and grit against a USC team that averages 84 points a game and shoots over 40% from three.
They sorta rose to their coach’s challenge. After allowing USC to score 45 first-half points on nearly 65% shooting, they held the Trojans to 28 points in the second. Whereas USC seemed to score at will in the first half, Arizona came up with stops and blocks in the second half, including two huge swats to start the first overtime. Yet, it still wasn’t enough. Too often, Trojans junior guard Julian Jacobs swept through a wide-open lane for an easy jam, or other Trojans were left with too much time and space. Sophomore guard Elijah Stewart scored 27 points on 5-8 shooting from deep. He was also 9-13 from field goal range. It is clear that this team, which Miller called "the worst defensive team that I’ve coached at Arizona since my first year," has got to improve their defensive mindset, and quick, or these early deficits will continue.
2. Allonzo Trier is clutch (kinda)
Again and again, Trier has proven himself to be a legitimate star on the rise. Throughout the four overtimes, Trier made key baskets, either from deep or midrange after one or two hard penetrating dribbles. He grabbed rebounds (6) and found his teammates with the assist (4). He looked, not like a freshman, but a veteran upperclassman who had been in situations like these before and knew what he was doing. When the defense foolishly gave him space, he shot without hesitation, utterly relaxed and comfortable in his role as his team’s go-to player.
Unless he was at the foul line. Tied at 93 with just over a minute remaining in the third overtime, Trier had two separate opportunities at the foul line to give his team control of the game. Both attempts clanked off the rim. He finished the game with 25 points on 10-19 shooting, 4-10 from deep, and 1-4 from the line. Of course, this is a team game and to even imply this loss should be put on Trier’s shoulders would be absurd. Even though his youth and inexperience revealed themselves at the most inopportune time, you still have to feel encouraged with Trier at the helm of Arizona’s future, even amid so much recent frustration.
3. Arizona’s struggle to close out games is maddeningly real
In back-to-back games now, Arizona has fought back from a significant deficit to either tie or lead the game with seconds remaining, only to somehow allow the other team to steal the game. Down ten against UCLA with three minutes remaining, the Wildcats rallied to tie the game at 83, then lost on a last-second three by Bryce Alford when Arizona did not successfully defend a screen.
Against USC, they were resilient enough to keep forcing overtime after overtime, but failed to execute when it mattered to put away the game. Missed free throws, bobbled rebounds, uncontested shots -- these are miscues that need to be corrected if Arizona wants to win close games. Perhaps they can learn from their most recent opponent. USC made every single one of their free throw attempts during the fourth overtime, which accounted for six of their eight points.
Still, not all is lost. The Wildcats have repeatedly demonstrated their mental toughness, and now just have to search a littler deeper to find that final, crucial step of total execution.