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USC rally falls short in Tucson; News and notes from McKale Center

By Rich Ruben

The Trojans tried to come back from a 20-point deficit against Arizona in Tucson, but could get no closer than three and ultimately lost 85-80. SC’s usually reliable defense let them down. The Wildcats made over 45% of their shots from the field, and were shooting much better before going cold in the final 8+ minutes. In that late span, they missed every shot but made enough foul shots to win the game, sinking 10- 16 from the line during this stretch.  

The final game stats show that the Trojans shot well enough to win, but a closer look reflects major issues. As a team, SC made 50% of their shots and 75% of their 24 free throws, but almost all of the scoring came from only three players, Onyeka, Daniel and Nick. The trio scored 63 points, but didn’t receive enough help from their teammates. 
SC fell victim to poor shooting from their guards. The combination of Jonah, Elijah, Ethan, Kyle, and Quinton were 5-20 from the field, 2-9 from three, and 3-7 from the line. 

Onyeka played almost 37 minutes and made 7-11 shots and 9-10 from the line, to finish with 23 points, 6 offensive rebounds and 8 total boards, 2 assists, and 2 blocks. In Nick‘s 22 1/2 minutes he made 8 of his 11 shots and both free throws, to finish with 18 points and 7 rebounds. His minutes were limited due to foul trouble. Andy said that Daniel played a tremendous game. Foul trouble limited him to less than 28 minutes, but he was SC’s only outside threat, sinking 7-10 from the field including 4-7 from three and he made his 4 foul shots to finish 22 points in his best game as a Trojan. 

The night began on a sour note. During warmups I learned that Nick and Jonah would not start due to the dreaded “violation of team rules.” Elijah did not start in place of Jonah, for the same reason. Isaiah and Quinton got the starts. After the game I asked Andy why the players didn’t start, and he initially held to “violation of team rules,” though as he talked a bit more he added that when players keep violating the same rule, there will be the same discipline. I took that comment to refer to earlier in the year when Jonah didn’t start because he missed or was late for one or more classes. This must be frustrating for the coaches, since Jonah, Nick and Elijah are the team’s only returning players, and should be the leaders. All three first came off the bench with 13:37 left in the first half. After the game Andy was asked if the absence  of the three hurt the Trojans early, and he answered with an empathetic “no,” and went on to say the game was close in the opening minutes. 

Two huge fouls during the Trojan’s late run were backbreakers. First, with the shot clock running out, Wildcat star freshman point guard Nico Mannion threw up an off balance prayer from three, which had no chance to go in. Elijah tried to block the heave, which allowed Mannion to jump into Elijah and get three free throws. The second key foul wasn’t as egregious, but was a poor defensive decision. Mannion drove along the baseline and threw up a wild hook shot from a nearly impossible angle. Big O tried to block the shot but was called for a foul resulting in two more free throws. 

The Cats ultimately won the game from the line, making 28-40. A few of the fouls were intentional very late, but the 10 point margin from the line was the difference. SC shot the ball well from the line, making 75% of their 24 attempts, though Ethan missed 4 in a row at one point in the first half. The Cats also committed only 6 turnovers, which limited the Trojans to only 9 fast break points. 

The Trojans have now lost two in a row for the first time this season. Saturday’s game against ASU in Tempe has become very important. A road split would be acceptable, but ASU is playing very well recently and breezed to an easy win over UCLA Thursday night. 

News And Notes From McKale Center

– I sat in row 4 along the baseline behind the Trojan bench. Andy was coaching hard all game. During one first half timeout Andy was very animated, trying hard to get his players to do what he wanted. A couple of times Andy and Josh Hart were trying to get their point across to Ethan and Kyle. Josh spent another timeout talking to one of the officials; the ref had his arm around Jason’s waist as they talked. 

– After the game Andy said they had several defensive rotation breakdown, especially in the first half, which led to open shots. In answer to my question about why Elijah and Q took only three shots combined over 35+ minutes, he said that the coaches can’t script everything. If the shots are there, the players have to take them. 

– Andy complimented Daniel saying that he played with great confidence. Andy pointed out that Daniel posted up and also made threes. During one run SC used a small lineup with Daniel playing power forward and he did a good job. This lineup closed the gap from 10 to 3 in one stretch in the first half. This was probably Daniel’s best game of the season. 

– Andy said Q played well; he had 4 assists in his 13 minutes. 

– The defense had trouble staying with freshman guard Josh Green in the first half, and he converted several open shots and had 12 first half points. I asked Andy if they changed anything on defense, and he said they just did a better job of staying with Green, who scored only 6 in the second half. 

– McKale seats 14,600 and it was full. The crowd was very loud and energized when the Cats were building their lead, but surprisingly were much quieter when the Trojans had their comeback. It felt like there was a lot of anxiety in the building as the gap narrowed. 

– The design of the seating leaves the small upper deck seats a long way from the court. Similar to how far away upper deck seats are at Staples. 

– Inside McKale is a plaque listing the Cats’ 31 All Americans and another with a list of current NBA players. Both lists are very impressive.  

– Arizona’s offense plays at a much faster pace than the Trojans. It was like watching an air raid offensive against an older pro style offense which employs a fullback and tight end. 

– Arizona was a terrible team with no history of success before Lute Olson arrived. He changed everything. The feel in the building from the outset was that the crowd expected the Cats to win, similar to the feel in the Coliseum when Pete was the coach. 

– Before the game, the band gave a shout out to Wilbur the Wildcat mascot when he first came onto the court. Seemed childish. They used to greet Lute Olson the same way, but don’t do the same for Sean Miller. 

– In the matchup of the two freshman bigs, it was close to a standoff. O outscored Zeke Nnaji 23-18. Nnaji is physical similar to O. Good size and quickness. O is a better rim protector and is better defensively in the paint, but Nnaji has a jump shot from 12-15 feet which O lacks. They both will likely be first round picks in the upcoming draft. 

– Here’s a scary note. The three players who carried the team will very likely not be here next season. Nick and Daniel are seniors and O will probably enter the draft. This leads to the question: “How likely is it that Andy and staff can sustain a multi year run, even with Evan Mobley next year?” I wrote before the season that sustained success will depend to a significant degree on recruiting for next year. That remains true today. 

– Two last stats. Arizona out rebounded SC the entire game, but the final numbers were close, 34-30. Where the Cats had a big edge was in points off turnovers, 18-5. 

– I’ll leave you with this. Opposing teams and fans always complain about the repetitive SC band during the course of football games – “Don’t they know any other songs?”  The constant “UofA” chant which started before the game is much the same.