No. 2 Arizona throttles No. 16 USC to win Pac-12 title
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A return to regular-season Pac-12 Conference glory for No. 2 Arizona was not an occasion for wild celebrations, loud roars or proud proclamations.
A convincing 91-71 victory over No. 16 Southern California was more of an arm-around-your-shoulder moment as the Wildcats won their first regular-season conference title in four seasons. Arizona used a business-like approach to knock of the second-place Trojans with the help of a little perspective.
Bennedict Mathurin scored 19 points and Kerr Kriisa added 18 in the rout, while Justin Kier scored 12 points as the Wildcats (26-3, 16-2 Pac-12) rebounded from an out-of-character double digit loss at Colorado over the weekend.
“We know who we are; we took that ‘L’ to the head,” Kier said about Saturday’s eye-opening 79-63 loss at Colorado. “We knew we had to fix some things from that game but we weren’t too down on ourselves because we know we could have played better.”
First-year Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd reminded his team that conference titles are expected for a program rich in tradition. His team made it look like it had been in this position before.
“Our guys are built for it,” Lloyd said. “They were excited to play and you saw that look in their eye early. I felt good about practice (Monday). I felt great about shootaround today. I was trying to not get too excited because that doesn’t always translate to a win. This time, the guys brought us home.”
Max Agbonkpolo scored 14 points, while Drew Peterson and Chevez Goodwin had 10 points each as the Trojans (25-5, 14-5) saw their six-game winning streak come to an end. USC lost its first game since Feb. 5 when they failed to hold on to a second-half lead at Arizona in a 72-63 defeat.
The Trojans fell into a second-place tie in the conference standings with UCLA. The winner of Saturday’s game between Los Angeles rivals will finish alone in second place.
Playing in a game that was rescheduled from Jan. 2 because of USC’s COVID-19 concerns, Arizona had no issue with its third game in six days. The Wildcats led 17-8 at the first timeout just over five minutes into the game, went up by 20 for the first time with just under three minutes remaining in the first half and shot 55% (22 of 40) before halftime.
“Our guys didn’t play with the pace necessary in the first half and it showed,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said.
In winning their first regular-season conference title since the 2017-18 season, the Wildcats improved on their best overall record since they were 28-2 in 2013-14. Arizona also shot 48.1% from the field or better in all 10 of its Pac-12 road games.
Mathurin went 7 of 13 from the field for Arizona, while adding six assists and five rebounds as he continued to make a case for conference player-of-the-year honors. Dalen Terry and Oumar Ballo had 11 points each for the Wildcats.
“We’re thankful but not satisfied,” Mathurin said about the first-place finish in the regular season. “The job is not finished.”
Isaiah Mobley scored nine points for USC with a game-high 11 rebounds as the Trojans shot just 39.7% from the field and 22.2% (4 of 18) from 3-point range.
“Well, Drew’s had a terrific season, so has Isaiah and so has Boogie (Ellis), and they started out 3-for-23,” Enfield said about poor early shooting. “Your leading scorers have to play well in big games or you’re just not going to win. When you’re paying 30-something minutes each, you have to produce.”
USC’s second sold out game of the season included a pair of heavyweights from the football program. Transfer quarterback Caleb Williams was in attendance as was new head coach Lincoln Riley.
Riley received a huge cheer when he was introduced and took the opportunity to bond with the student section when he lobbed giveaway T-shirts into the crowd. USC admitted 2,700 students to the game, the most in the history of Galen Center, which opened in 2006.
Arizona: The Wildcats not only rebounded from Saturday’s dreadful 16-point loss at Colorado, they finished the road portion of the schedule with an 8-3 record. There are nothing but home games and neutral courts ahead. Arizona closes the regular-season schedule with games against Stanford and Cal at Tucson, Ariz., where they are 15-0. On neutral courts Arizona is 2-0.
USC: The Trojans’ bid for a Pac-12 title fell short, although plenty of high-profile chances remain. USC gets cross-town rival UCLA next, putting a five-game winning streak against the Bruins on the line. The Trojans also head to the Pac-12 Conference Tournament next week at Las Vegas with a first-round bye in hand, then have the NCAA Tournament next with a chance to better last year’s Elite Eight run.
Arizona: The Wildcats return home to face Stanford on Thursday.
USC: The Trojans will play at No. 17 UCLA on Saturday to wrap up their regular-season schedule.