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Monday, December 22, 2014 | Last updated: 2:53am

Arizona beats USC to earn program's best start ever



LOS ANGELES — Junior point guard T.J. McConnell and sophomore forward Brandon Ashley combined for 38 points and 10 assists to carry Arizona’s No. 1 ranked men’s basketball team to a 73-53 victory over USC Sunday night and mark the best start to a season in program history.

Ashley and McConnell each put up a game-high 19 points and shot with 63.6 percent accuracy (14-for-22). Junior guard Nick Johnson had a game-high five steals.

“We have a close-knit team led by a veteran backcourt that really sets the tone every day,” head coach Sean Miller said. “These long road trips really challenge you, and as a coach, you really trust the leaders of the team. T.J. [McConnell] and Nick [Johnson] really are doing a great job on and off the court, and we kind of follow their lead.”

In addition to his season-high point total, McConnell added six assists, four rebounds, and two steals. The Pittsburgh native represents Arizona’s first true pass-first point guard in years, but tonight, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound guard showed off his shooting as he converted 5-of-7 from 3-point range.

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Courtesy of Benjamin Dunn / Daily Trojan Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski and USC center Omar Oraby vie for the ball during the Wildcats' 73-53 win over the Trojans in Los Angeles on Sunday.

“The fact that [McConnell] is becoming more aggressive is really helpful for our team,” Ashley explained. “He’s a pass-first kind of guy, so a lot of times, teams don’t really play him as hard. The fact that he’s shooting the ball right now is really big for us because he can make those shots and can really change the game.”

Ashley shot 7-for-10 from the field and 5-for-8 from the stripe while accumulating four assists, two rebounds, a block and a steal. In the postgame press conference, Miller dubbed Ashley the game’s most valuable player.

“[Sunday] night, Brandon [Ashley] was the best player on our team. He had timely baskets, and it seemed like every time he was involved in an offensive play, we really needed him to be involved,” Miller said. “He did a great job in the high post and really answered the bell tonight on a game where we really needed it.”

“We have a close-knit team led by a veteran backcourt that really sets the tone every day.”

Johnson – who contributed 15 points, three assists and two rebounds to Arizona’s cause – discussed how the Wildcats have survived with a unblemished record, even after finding themselves having to come back from a deficit. Southern California led Arizona by four points at one time toward the end of the first half before the Wildcats took control.

“We’re just trying to stay poised in the last few minutes with a defensive mindset,” Johnson said. “They’re a good team. They have good players who make shots. We know that we are going to get everyone’s best shot, and that’s what [USC] did: They gave us their best shot and had us for a bit, but we rallied back and stayed with it.”

Miller said that the No. 1 ranking in the nation and the broken school record, while exhilarating, is not an end in itself.

“This is something that I think all of us will cherish because any school record you break at Arizona in the basketball program is a real record because of the great tradition that we have,” Miller said. “We have a lot of pride in what we’ve done, but it’s not as if that is the end goal. Now, we have to move toward our rivalry in Arizona State, and we really have to be ready.”

Arizona goes on to face in-state rival ASU at home on Thursday.

—Follow Evan Rosenfeld @EvanRosenfeld17


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