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Defense, shuffled lineup pace Arizona men’s basketball to comfortable win over USC

arizona-wildcats-usc-trojans-mens-basketball-recap-highlights-stats-pac12-2023-larsson-henderson Arizona Athletics

Tommy Lloyd said he didn’t have a cookbook for how to respond to losses, but he does have some recipes to fix Arizona’s recent struggles.

A change to the starting lineup—the first that wasn’t due to injury or suspension since Lloyd took over the program—as well as some rotation adjustments that led to paid big dividends for the 11th-ranked Wildcats, both offensively and defensively, in an 81-66 home win over USC on Thursday night at McKale Center.

Lloyd subbed out Pelle Larssson at the 3 for Cedric Henderson Jr., and both responded in a big way. Larsson had 15 points, his most since scoring 17 against Tennessee more than a month ago, while Henderson’s 11 matched his combined point total from the previous four contests.

Arizona (16-3, 5-3 Pac-12) had five players in double figures, with Azuolas Tubelis going for 15 points and a career-high 17 rebounds and Courtney Ramey leading all scorers with 16 thanks to a five 3-pointers.

The UA shot 48.3 percent overall and hit 12 3s, while it held USC (13-6, 5-3) to 36.9 percent shooting including 4 of 17 from 3. Arizona outrebounded the Trojans by seven, and though it allowed 11 offensive boards those only resulted in 14 points.

In addition to starting Henderson, who hadn’t been in the lineup since the first three games of the season while Ramey was serving a suspension, Lloyd also mixed up the subbing. Henri Veesaar and Adama Bal only played three minutes each, with the Wildcats regularly playing Tubelis at the 5 and either Larsson or Henderson at the 4.

Despite often being the smaller team on the court, Arizona never trailed.

It led 41-26 at the half, but the second half issues that have existed since Christmas popped up right after the break. The Wildcats missed their first six shots, with USC going on a 6-0 run on the other end to cut the margin to nine, and in that run Ballo was called for a technical after barking over a no-call and Kerr Kriisa went crashing to the floor trying to draw a charge in the line from USC’s Joshua Morgan.

Kriisa’s injury—he returned less than three minutes later after gingerly walking off the court—seemed to spark the UA, with Henderson hitting back-to-back 3s and forcing a Trojans timeout.

After that Arizona’s defense took over, holding USC to two field goals the first 9-plus of the second half while extending the lead to 57-36. However, foul trouble creeped in for the Wildcats and Veesaar had to come in after Tubelis and Oumar Ballo both got their third foul, and the Trojans responded with an 8-0 run to get within 57-44 with 8:49 left.

The UA got the lead back to 18 a little more than a minute later, though, keeping it at 14 or above the rest of the way. USC tried to press, with mixed results, but then Ramey hit consecutive 3s to make it 76-56 with 3:08 left.

The UA came out with a ton of energy, so much so USC coach Andy Enfield called timeout just over three minutes in after falling behind 9-2. Arizona upped the margin to double digits via a 7-0 run to lead 19-8 with 11:41 left and it remained up there almost the entire half, with the Wildcats leading by as many as 16.

Larsson, who entered the game after the first media timeout, had eight points in the opening half as well as a dish to Ballo for a dunk-and-one to make it 28-15, and his 3 put the UA ahead 34-20 with 3:36 to go.

Arizona takes on Pac-12 preseason favorite UCLA (16-2, 7-0) at 12 p.m. MT Saturday. The fifth-ranked Bruins had won 13 in a row entering Thursday night’s game at ASU.