After holding USC to a season-low 28.1 shooting percentage and limiting the Trojans to 50 points, Arizona players and head coach Sean Miller were posed a question by a reporter in the post-game press conference.
“Is this the best defense you guys can play?” he asked.
The Trojans only made seven first half shots, creeping out to a 20-point first half. They also had 11 first-half turnovers and only three assists, which led to 13 Arizona points.
“We knew we wanted to attack on defense,” said freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski, who scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds. “We had a rough start last time. The start we had today helped carry the momentum for the whole game.”
The Wildcats were on the wrong side of a 21-5 score early in the first half in Thursday’s loss to UCLA, before making an almost identical run on USC to start Saturday’s game, in which the Trojans did not reach the double-digit mark until almost 14 minutes had passed in the first half.
Arizona’s defensive performance was notable, not only because of the lopsided score, but also because the Trojans, despite their 8-13 overall record, had been scoring well since the departure of former head coach Kevin O’Neill.
USC scored 93 points in an overtime loss against Arizona State on Thursday night. In the game, Trojans point guard Jio Fontan led USC with 25 points, while shooting guard J.T. Terrell scored 20.
But Saturday, no USC player scored more than nine points, and Fontan and Terrell scored a combined 12 points on 3-of-16 shooting. The Trojans’ combined 28.1 shooting percentage was the lowest that Arizona has held an opponent to all season.
“Their defense was exceptional,” interim USC coach Bob Cantu said after the game. “They were very physical and very aggressive. We weren’t able to get what we did against other teams. They had a tremendous focus.”
The defensive performance was a stark contrast to Arizona’s effort on Thursday against the Bruins. After the game, Miller said the Wildcats never had an answer for the guard combination of Shabazz Muhammad and Larry Drew II, who scored a combined 30 points.
“We were ready,” Miller said. “If you’ve followed USC recently, that’s what they’ve done well. They’ve scored, they’ve hit threes. We really respected their firepower on offense and we were ready to defend.”
After Thursday’s loss to UCLA, which freshman forward Brandon Ashley attributed to being “overly anxious,” both Miller and players said the focus of practice on Friday and early Saturday was defense, although it always is with Miller.
“It is always the focus, but sometimes when you lose, it’s really the focus,” he said. “Not just for me and our staff, but everybody. When we were 12-0 before the conference season began, we were able to defend some really good teams.”
That the Trojans were able to get to 28.1 percent shooting and score 50 points was a feat in and of itself. At the 7:33 mark in the second half, USC had 34 points after forward Eric Wise hit a jumper. Over the final minutes of the game, Miller replaced his entire first and second string with walk-on bench players, and USC made nine shots in a row to decrease the lead from 34 at the 4:06 mark to 24.
“I was glad that we were able to defend them like we did,” Miller said. “It starts with consisted, tough-minded defense. Big picture-wise, I think we leave this game feeling good about ourselves.”