Arizona knocked off UCLA in overtime and USC strolled to a 20-point win over Oregon in the third round of the Pac-12 tournament Friday to set up an Arizona-USC matchup for the championship game on Saturday.
Arizona and USC only met one time during the regular season this year and it was in the McKale Center. Arizona won that game handedly, 81-67, but that is in the past, according to USC players.
“They were at home and, you know, it's tough to win with that crowd there,” USC forward Chimezie Metu said about the game in McKale. “But we are on a neutral court tomorrow, and I like our chances.”
Metu may not have watched the Arizona-UCLA game, because it certainly didn’t feel like a neutral court. The stadium holds 18,000 people and it was well over three-quarters full, with about 90 percent Arizona fans.
In fact, the stadium was so big that Arizona freshman and Pac-12 player of the year Deandre Ayton said he had butterflies when he first walked out on the court.
“That first game, I had butterflies,” Ayton said. “After that it was just business.”
Ayton certainly cleared away any butterflies he had for Arizona's second game. The big man scored 32 points and 14 rebounds in a game that came down to overtime. In overtime, Ayton calmly shouldered his team and carried them to a win, scoring 13 of the Wildcats last 15 points.
How do you guard Ayton?
“Shhh.. I don't know,” Metu said shaking his head.
Andy Enfield, USC’s head coach, seemed a little more optimistic when he was asked the same question.
“Who’s he?” Enfield said rhetorically and then answered his own question. “He’s probably the number one pick in the NBA draft. He’s also a really unselfish player, he makes great decisions on the court and he has long arms. We are going to have our hands full, but we have some pretty good players too.
USC does have some pretty good players. Sophomore guard Jonah Matthews scored 27 points against Oregon while shooting 8-for-10 from the floor and 7-for-9 from three. Yet he is fifth in scoring this season for the Trojans. Led by Metu with 15.9 ppg and 7.5 rpg, USC has four players that average 11 or more points this season.
The good news for Arizona is that the Wildcats have been playing quality defense recently. Arizona struggled with defense throughout the season, but things seem to be coming together at just the right time.
“Offensively, I think we can score on anyone,” Rawle Alkins said. “But when our defense is rolling, it’s tough to stop us.”
That confidence has spread and Arizona's point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said now the focus is only on being prepared.
“Right now It’s just about us, we need to be the most focused and prepared to play," Jackson-Cartwright said.
Focused or not, the Wildcats still have Ayton, and there is evidence to prove that he tilts the scales in Arizona's favor.
According to Vegas odds, that tilt has the Wildcats favored by 3.5 points.
The Pac-12 tournament championship starts at 7:00 p.m. (8:00 Arizona time) in Las Vegas and will be broadcasted on FS1.
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