The No. 23 Arizona Wildcats held on late to defeat the USC Trojans 85-80 Thursday night at the McKale Center, improving to 16-6 overall and 6-3 in the Pac-12.
While our full recap of Thursday’s game can be found here, and a transcript of what Sean Miller said afterwards here, below is further analysis of the Wildcats’ narrow victory over the Trojans.
Rebounding + lack of turnovers
Arizona was the better team for a good portion of the game against USC — but still, Sean Miller wasn’t happy with how his squad played Thursday night.
“Tonight we obviously reverted,” he said after his team nearly blew a 20-point second half lead. “We didn’t play well. We didn’t play smart. I really feel like we struggled throughout the game.”
However, if there were two things that Miller was happy with after the game, it was his team’s advantage on the glass and its lack of turnovers.
The Wildcats finished with just six TOs (compared to 12 from the Trojans) — and outrebounded their opponents 34-30 overall and 12-9 on the offensive glass.
“The two stats that we really honed in on,” Miller said of rebounding and turnovers afterwards. “They’ll be equally as big on Saturday.”
Winning the rebounding battle and turning the ball over less times than your opponent is always a formula for success and we saw that Thursday night. If the UA can continue to succeed in those areas the rest of the season, they will benefit in a major way.
While Nico Mannion (20 points, 7 assists and 3 rebounds) and Zeke Nnaji (18 points and 11 rebounds) also had good scoring games, it was the improved play of Green that stood out the most offensively against the Trojans.
Green struggled against ASU, Washington and Washington State, averaging a little more 5 points per game and shooting just 23 percent from the field. But he was back to his best on Thursday night, finishing with 18 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists on 6-of-11 shooting.
He played with a super high motor throughout the game — getting after it on defense, throwing down some electric dunks and continuously diving after loose balls. Afterwards a mostly frustrated Miller seemed happy with how Green had bounced back from his rough three game stretch.
“I’m not surprised at all that Josh played well,” he said. “I really would have predicted that he would play well, because of how he’s approached these last probably 10 days. It’s really great to see a freshman kind of bounce back from from missing some shots. He was a big factor in our win tonight.”
The first half of the conference season is now over, and there is no doubt that Wildcats will need to see more of this kind of play from JG down the stretch and heading into the conference and NCAA tournaments.
It’s worth noting that he is now averaging a whole six points more per game at home in Pac-12 play than on the road — 13.2 ppg at Mckale, compared to 7.2 ppg in away games.
It obviously didn’t proceed the way that Miller wanted it to, but still, the Wildcats’ win on Thursday was a big one.
With it, they secured their third straight victory and kept pace in the Pac-12 regular season title race — staying even in the loss column with Oregon and Colorado.
The Ducks and the Buffs are now both 7-3, while Arizona sits just a half-game back in the standings in second place at 6-3.
If the Cats can beat UCLA on Saturday night and results in Corvallis and Boulder go their way, Arizona could be in first place by the end of the weekend.
So, even if it was ugly — the importance of this win against USC shouldn’t be overlooked.
Another big lead squandered
The Wildcats held multiple leads of 20 points Thursday night, but thanks to a second half in which they shot 53 percent the Trojans were able to get the deficit down to as little as three points within the final minute.
It was eerily reminiscent to the ASU game in Tempe a couple of weeks back — where Arizona seemed to be in complete control only for a huge second half lead to disappear.
This time the Cats were able to escape with a victory, but they did so after not making a single field goal over the last eight minutes of the game.
Their last 15 points came from the free throw line, and Miller’s dour postgame mood obviosuly stemmed — at least partially — from his team’s struggle to close out an opponent once again.
Free throw shooting
As I just mentioned, the Wildcats’ last 15 points came from the free throw line, but once again in a close game they missed some key free throws down the stetch.
Arizona missed six foul shots in the final two minutes of the game — Mannion missing four of those while Dylan Smith and Stone Gettings bricked one a piece.
It didn’t come back to haunt them, but the game could have been closed out much sooner than it finally was.
Miller said afterwards that the struggles from the line late in the game were “the least” of his worries, but still, after missing free throws late against ASU and Washington as well — it’s something this team needs to get better at.
Other than the walk-ons, Chase was the only Wildcat who didn’t seen any action against USC.
It was the second straight game that Jeter didn’t play, and while Sean Miller didn’t rule out the possibility of him getting another chance before the end of the season, there is no doubt that Jeter is out of the rotation at the present time.
“We’re playing nine players, it’s hard to play 10,” Miller said after the game.
“That’s not to say Chase won’t get the opportunity, but we played the guys that we thought gave us the best chance here tonight.”