LAS VEGAS — No surprises here.
“The top two teams in the Pac-12 going at it, it’s going to be a good one,” said USC point guard Jordan McLaughlin.
Arizona and USC only faced each other once in the regular season when the Wildcats beat the Trojans, 81-67, in Tucson on Feb. 10.
USC was neck-and-neck with Arizona until midway through the second half when the Wildcats finally pulled away.
“We gotta play the whole 40 minutes,” McLaughlin said of Saturday’s rematch. “We can’t relax for one minute.”
Like any team playing in a conference tournament championship game, Arizona and USC are playing great basketball right now.
Arizona has won four straight, while USC has won six of its last seven. And both teams have won their two Pac-12 Tournament games by double digits.
Arizona beat UCLA 78-67 in the semifinals Friday, while USC routed Oregon 74-54.
“We gotta come out with the same energy we’ve had these last two nights, playing defense and knocking down shots,” McLaughlin said.
For the second straight game, Arizona will be tasked with defending an elite point guard.
Part one went well.
The Wildcats held UCLA standout Aaron Holiday to 15 points on 5-of-20 shooting in their overtime win vs. the Bruins, thanks to the gritty defense of Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
“We saw a little bit of the game,” said McLaughlin. “He’s feisty.”
McLaughlin, who has played against Jackson-Cartwright since high school, had 16 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists on 9 shots against Arizona in February.
“He’s crafty. He gets under you, he pressures the ball, and he’s a good defender,” McLaughlin said of PJC. “We just have to be smart on offense.”
USC wasn’t so smart on offense in its 20-point win vs. Oregon. The Trojans did shoot 50 percent, but committed 20 turnovers.
McLaughlin had 10.
“We lead the league in the least amount of turnovers, we average nine a game,” said USC coach Andy Enfield. “This is very uncharacteristic. We haven’t done this all season. And our point guard, Jordan McLaughlin, has one of the best-assist-to-turnover ratios in the United States, and tonight he had an off game with some of his decision-making.
“So we have to give him a little slack once in a while. He was an All-League kid. One of the best point guards in the United States. So we just made some dumb decisions, especially when I turned the heat up in the press in the second half. We were dribbling behind our back in traffic, picking the ball up, throwing off our leg, and just making careless mistakes. So we’re very confident in our guys to handle the ball. We’ve averaged nine turnovers a game, which is by far the best in the league.”
Arizona has been through more than its fair share of adversity this season, and USC can say the same.
Projected starting shooting guard De’Anthony Melton was declared ineligible after being mentioned in the FBI probe into college basketball recruiting, then second-leading scorer Bennie Boatwright suffered a season-ending knee injury in mid-February.
Meanwhile, reserves Derryck Thornton and Jonah Mathews have been in and out of the lineup with their own ailments.
“It’s amazing that we’re here because our players have stepped up,” Enfield said. “When we have 40 percent of our starting lineup out with Melton and Boatwright, that being said, we’re now 7-1 without Bennie in the Pac-12.
“And Bennie has meant so much to our program the last three years. He’s just a terrific basketball player. But that means we have a pretty deep roster and our guys have played excellent basketball. Our defense right now is the best it’s been. And we have to rely on that as we go forward here.”
Boatwright spaced the floor for USC star center Chimezie Metu, while his replacement, Nick Rakocevic, is more of a paint presence.
Rakocevic had 11 rebounds in USC’s win vs. Oregon.
“A couple guys have just had to step up,” Metu said. “(Boatwright) spaced the floor for us, but he’s not playing and we can’t sit here and sulk on that. We have to step up and be ready when their numbers are called.”
Metu will be one part of Saturday’s most anticipated matchup. The junior big man will go up against UA wunderkind Deandre Ayton who had a career-high 32 points and 14 rebounds in Arizona’s win vs. UCLA on Friday.
Metu is averaging 16.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks this year. Ayton, the Pac-12 Player of the Year and potential No. 1 overall draft pick, is averaging 19.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks this season.
“He’s just another player,” Metu said. “He puts his shoes on the same way I put my shoes on. He’s a big, physical dude. I just gotta force him to take tough shots, and we gotta go at him on defense.”
Saturday’s tip-off is set for 7 p.m. PT on FOX Sports 1. It will be Arizona’s fourth Pac-12 Tournament championship game appearance in the last five years.
The winner clinches an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, though both teams will be in the field no matter what happens.
“It’s not easy to get to a conference tournament championship in back-to-back years,” said UA guard Allonzo Trier. “So I really admire our team and our fight.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire