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Arizona trounced by USC as Chase Jeter sits with back injury

NCAA Basketball: Oregon at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Chase Jeter proved his worth without stepping foot on the court.

As their starting center sat out with a sore back, the Arizona Wildcats were trounced by the USC Trojans 80-57 on Thursday night in Los Angeles.

“It’s definitely a tough deal,” UA forward Ira Lee said of Jeter’s absence.* “He’s our captain, he’s our only true center, so it was a tough deal. I felt like we battled tonight, but we made a lot of mistakes.”

The Wildcats (14-6, 5-2 Pac-12) turned in their worst offensive performance of the season. USC’s long, athletic zone defense held UA to a season-worst 28 percent shooting and a putrid 5-for-25 mark from 3.

Brandon Randolph hit two late 3s to match Lee with a team-high 12 points.

“Our percentage from 2 was a big reason we lost,” said UA coach Sean Miller. “The 3s, yes, but we didn’t make any 2s, either.”

USC 7-footer Nick Rakocevic sure did, feasting on the Jeter-less frontcourt to the tune of 27 points and 12 rebounds on 13-of-17 shooting.

“Chase is important on defense. He’s important on offense, gives us a guy who can score and get fouled around the basket. And the difference without him, it isn’t that the other guys can’t do it, it’s just we don’t have that depth up front. So with him and without him, we’re two different teams,” Miller said.

“And the team we have right now without him, we have to make shots, a lot of 3s, jump shots, and we weren’t able to do that. We had one of those miserable nights shooting. Seven turnovers was great, but we weren’t able to finish at the rim, 2-on-1s, drives.”

Arizona struggled to defend the perimeter, too, allowing the Trojans to shoot 10 for 20 from behind the arc. Bennie Boatwright and Jonah Mathews each had 12 points. Star freshman Kevin Porter Jr. returned from suspension and poured in 14 on seven shots, draining a trio of 3s.

USC (11-8, 3-3) outrebounded the undersized Wildcats, 51-39. Arizona started Ryan Luther at center and 6-foot-5 wing Dylan Smith at power forward. Lee was the only frontcourt player off the bench.

“That’s the smallest team in 15 years that I’ve ever had on the court,” Miller said.

The lowest point in the game came late in the first half when Arizona had a 5-on-1 then a 4-on-1 fastbreak, but failed to get any points out of it.

First, Alex Barcello missed an uncontested reverse layup:

Then Luther, who for some reason did not pass the ball to a host of wide-open teammates, got stuffed at the rim by Mathews:

After Arizona missed those bunnies — and many, many others — USC guard Derryck Thornton banked in a desperation 3 at the buzzer to make it 36-19 at the half, the Trojans’ largest lead of the period. They would extend their lead to as many as 23 in the second half.

“Everybody was shaky tonight, even myself,” Lee said. “We couldn’t find a rhythm on offense and there were stretches where we were playing great defense, we just couldn’t score the ball.”

Arizona will try to avoid a Southern California sweep on Saturday at UCLA. Jeter gingerly went through warmups Thursday, so perhaps he will return for that game.

“I think he’s trying to work his way back, he just couldn’t do it (tonight),” Miller said. “We’re kind of evaluating game by game”

And trying to forget Thursday’s.

“I don’t think we can take anything” away from it, Miller said. “I mean, we got killed.”

*All quotes courtesy of Christopher Boan of Tucson Weekly.