Down two key players on a night they shot 28% from the floor and 12% from three-point range, you would think Arizona was blown out by the USC Trojans on Thursday night.
Yet, as they have all season, the Wildcats were somehow still in the game late, trailing behind by just four points with 2:52 minutes remaining. The early magic Arizona had shown to close games late has basically done a disappearing act in conference play as they dropped the first game of the Southern California road trip 57-48, putting a possible first-round bye at the Pac-12 Tournament in two weeks up in the air.
Things were already bleak before tip-off, as both Max Hazzard and Josh Green were announced out for Arizona. Hazzard missed due to personal reasons and Green suffered a lower back injury in the loss to Oregon.
A low-scoring first half saw USC use an 8-0 run to end the half to take a 26-21 lead, with momentum swinging the Trojans’ way after Onyeka Okongwu hit a three-pointer from nearly full-court to end the half, perhaps a sign of things to come. Arizona looked sluggish in the first half, hitting just 2-15 shots from beyond the arc and turning the ball over nine times.
While the poor shooting continued into the second half, USC was never quite able to put the Wildcats away for good. A Nico Mannion three-pointer cut the lead to just five points with 8:26 remaining, with Arizona getting as close as 47-44 at 3:53 and within 50-46 with 2:52 on the clock.
Things quickly went south from that point on. A Mannion turnover was followed by a missed jumper on two straight possessions from both Jemarl Baker and Zeke Nnaji, allowing USC to push the lead to nine points with just under one minute remaining, effectively sealing things. Nnaji led Arizona in scoring with 15 points and 10 rebounds with Mannion going just 3-14 for 11 points, continuing a slump that has seen him shoot 29.8% (28-94) over his last eight games.
The loss all but ended any chance Arizona had at winning the conference championship, but also puts them in position to play the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. With the top four seeds getting a first-round bye, Arizona currently sits at fifth in the conference. Anything can happen with three games left in the season as the difference between second place and seventh place is just two games in the loss column.
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