Arizona is going to miss when USC heads to the Big Ten, since the Trojans have so graciously been the Wildcats’ post-loss therapy pillow.
The UA beat USC 87-81 on Thursday night in Los Angeles, bouncing back from the heartbreaking loss to ASU to secure the No. 2 seed in next week’s Pac-12 Tournament. And in the process Tommy Lloyd collected his 58th win as a head coach, tying North Carolina’s Bill Guthridge for most in the first two seasons of coaching.
Arizona (25-5, 14-5 Pac-12) improved to 8-0 in regular-season games immediately after a loss, though this was the first time it didn’t win by double figures. It was the third time the Wildcats played the Trojans on the heels of the setback, winning by 20 at USC last season and by 15 at home in mid-January.
Azuolas Tubelis had 25 points, his most since that epic 40-spot against Oregon, on 11-of-17 shooting, and added 10 rebounds for his 12th double-double. Courtney Ramey had 16, while Kylan Boswell had 14 (as well as a key steal in the final minute) and Kerr Kriisa (11) and Oumar Ballo (10) also scored in double figures.
The UA shot 54.2 percent, making 9 of 18 3s, with Kriisa and Ramey each hitting three to remain first and second in the Pac-12 in triples. The Wildcats were outrebounded but had a 34-22 edge in points in the paint and turned 12 USC turnovers into 23 points.
USC (21-9, 13-6) got a career-high 35 from Boogie Ellis, who was 11 for 20 and hit six 3s, but the rest of the Trojans were 15 of 44 from the field.
The Wildcats were up 14 with 2:12 left before USC got as close as five, but Boswell and Pelle Larsson combined to make 5 of 6 free throws in the final 43 seconds to prevent another late collapse. Arizona had a 10-point lead on ASU with six minutes to go on Saturday, only to lose 89-88 on a 60-foot buzzer beater.
Arizona led 43-31 at the half, holding USC without a field goal the final three minutes before the break. The Wildcats built the margin to 49-36, forcing Andy Enfield to call timeout, and the Trojans responded with five in a row to get within eight at the first media timeout.
A Drew Peterson 3 cut it to 51-44 with 14:14 to go but then Ellis picked up his fourth foul, and with him out the Trojans lacked a go-to scorer. Meanwhile, Arizona made six of its next seven shots and to build a 66-51 advantage with 9:13 remaining.
The Wildcats kept the edge in double figures until Kobe Johnson scored on a putback with 3:14 left to get within 76-67, but on the other end Kriisa hit his third 3 and 47 seconds later Ramey drained his third triple to make it 82-68 with 2:12 left.
That’s when USC made a final push, conjuring images of the end stages of the ASU game.
Ellis hit a 3 to cap a 7-0 run, cutting the margin in half with 58 seconds left, then got the Trojans within 83-78 with another three with 36 seconds remaining. Larsson made two free throws on the other end, then Boswell stripped Ellis and induced his fifth foul with 19 seconds to go.
Neither team led by more than one score until Arizona ran off seven in a row to build a 19-12 lead with 10:53 left in the first half, holding at least a 5-point advantage the rest of the period. A lob from Larsson to Tubelis gave the Wildcats a 30-20 edge with 6:08 to go in the half, and the UA got the margin to as high as 12 thanks to a Kriisa 3—after he forced a tie-up in the backcourt during a press—with 17 seconds left.
The UA was aided by Ellis and Johnson both picking up their third fouls before halftime.
Arizona wraps up the regular season Saturday night against No. 4 UCLA (26-4, 17-2). The Wildcats have won three in a row over Bruins, including a 58-52 victory at McKale Center in January, but hasn’t won at Pauley Pavilion since 2017.
The UA hasn’t swept the Los Angeles trip since 2009-10.