Lost item found: Wildcats defense makes appearance in crucial win against USC

Simon Asher | The Daily Wildcat Arizona's Dusan Ristic, below, and USC's Nick Rakocevic, above, fight for the ball during the second half of the UA-USC game on Saturday, Feb. 10 at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

The sky was falling in Tucson following the Arizona men's basketball team's loss to UCLA Thursday Feb. 8, or at least it felt like it. But ahh, this is college basketball 2018, where your wildest dreams and worst fears can be realized within the span of 48 hours. And for the Wildcats, the missing slipper came in the form of nikes feverishly squeaking all over the court as they displayed the kind of defense their head coach had been hoping for all season in a 81-67 win against USC in McKale.

"It's not easy to pick yourself up off the mat, losing a home game at McKale isn't a good feeling, however we are 81-3 the last 84 games," Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. "...I feel good about how we responded and you know our season right now, especially the regular season, three weeks, so hopefully we can hit our stride and build off of our performance."

Rawle Alkins, who is still fighting to get back to 100 percent from his foot surgery, provided a spark from three, but the story of this game was defense, and for that you begin and end with Deandre Ayton according to Miller. Ayton was a matchup problem defensively for Trojan big men Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright. His quick ability to move and athleticism at the rim, altered shots and set the tone for Arizona.

USC's Chimezie Metu, right, tries to shoot over Arizona's Deandre Ayton, left, during the first half of the UA-USC game on Saturday, Feb. 10 at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

"We made our mind up after the UCLA game that instead of bouncing him back and forth and letting him guard multiple bigs, to let him guard one of them...tonight when I watched him out there he did a really good job on Boatwright," Miller said. "...I thought he set the tone. Our defense was night and day, even when they scored they earned it."

In the topsy turvy world that is the Pac-12, the Wildcats went from possibly losing sole possession of first place to up two games with five regular season conference games to go.It is as much about resiliency as it is ability and the toughest teams will begin to maneuver their way to the top. However, by a large measure, this was the first time Arizona had shown its ability to play at another level on both ends of the floor.

"They've always been good defensively, they just lost the other night, they were playing very emotional with the crowd and they were playing hard," USC head coach Andy Enfield said. "...Arizona played at a very high level."

USC's Derryck Thornton (5) goes for a layup contested by Arizona's Rawle Alkins during the first half of the UA-USC game on Saturday, Feb. 10 at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Arizona will have their work cut out for them in a trio of "prove-it" games on the road beginning with ASU then on to Oregon and Oregon State. Taking two out of three will, at a minimum, keep them one game up coming home for its regular season finale against Cal and Stanford. Defense, as seen against USC, will be every part a key for that to come to fruition. As Miller said, this game was good tape to show the team, it is also evidence that the ability is in these 'Cats somewhere.

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