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USC Sports

USC falls to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament championship game

A short walk from T-Mobile Arena, the Big Apple Coaster whips riders through a 180-degree twist and around the New York-New York Hotel at 67 mph.

The stomach-turning journey within screaming distance of the Pac-12 Conference tournament would seem familiar to Arizona and USC.

The schools ranked among the country’s top 10 teams in the preseason before the FBI arrested top assistants from both programs and plunged them into the middle of the federal probe into bribery and corruption in college basketball.

Arizona and USC plummeted out of the top 25. They faced grand jury subpoenas and wiretapped phone calls. Key recruits fled. Uncertainty swirled around both schools.

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Arizona and USC managed to set aside the up-and-down developments, resume winning, earn the top two seeds to the conference tournament and meet in Saturday’s title game. But only one of those teams has Deandre Ayton.

Behind the unstoppable freshman, No. 15 Arizona took control in the second half to emerge with a 75-61 win and its second straight conference championship.

USC (23-11), which reached the title game for the first time since winning it in 2009, is still projected to be an at-large selection for the NCAA tournament.

“We know we’re a talented team and we know we can go on a run,” Trojans senior Jordan McLaughlin said. “We’ve just got to watch what we did wrong on film and make the adjustments and get ready for the tournament.”

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Chimezie Metu, the star USC junior, figured playing on a neutral court would boost his team’s chances against Arizona (27-7). But, as has become routine at the tournament, the vast majority of the 16,501 fans on hand wore Arizona’s cardinal red and navy blue. They filled the building with defeating “U of A” chants and lusty boos after each call that didn’t go their way. It resembled an Ayton-themed celebration.

And thanks in large part to his 32 points and 18 rebounds, the bribery and corruption scandal felt a world away.

You won’t find the towering center’s name splashed across any of the megaresorts on the Strip like the slew of recording artists and acrobats and illusionists who keep this town entertained. But there wasn’t a bigger attraction Saturday.

Ayton, standing 7 feet 1 and weighing 260 pounds, is projected to be the top overall selection in this year’s NBA draft. There isn’t another player in the country with his combination of size, strength and agility. He can dominate the post, shoot long jumpers, keep pace up and down the court with players who are a foot shorter and a hundred pounds lighter.

The Pac-12 distributed more than 50 tickets to NBA executives and scouts for the tournament, most of them presumably eager to watch Ayton.

“He’s a once-in-a-generation player,” said Steve Lavin, the former UCLA and St. John’s coach.

But Metu, USC’s top big man, didn’t sound awed. Not even after Ayton chewed up UCLA with 32 points and 14 rebounds in the semifinals.

“He’s just another player,” Metu told reporters following Friday’s win over Oregon. “He puts his shoes on the same way I put my shoes on. … I’ve just got to force him to take tough shots, and we’ve got to go at him on defense.”

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Midway through the first half, Ayton backed down Metu near the basket, spun, banked in a short basket and drew a foul on the USC junior. Ayton sank a 17-foot jumper. He snatched rebound after rebound. He made the game look easy.

Despite Ayton’s play, USC sophomores Nick Rakocevic and Jonah Mathews combined for 24 points to give the Trojans a three-point halftime lead. But the duo didn’t score a point in the second half.

Metu, who finished with seven points and four rebounds before picking up his fourth foul with 10:44 left, never found a rhythm against Ayton and fellow 7-footer Dusan Ristic. Still, USC trailed by only three points when Metu headed to the bench.

Ayton then delivered a basket-punishing exhibition of dunks and low-post moves to push the game out of reach. The USC defense that smothered Oregon State and Oregon in the first two tournament games couldn’t stop him.

“Me and Chimezie tried to do everything we could to just contain him, because I don’t think you’re going to stop a guy like that,” Rakocevic said. “So, we just have to try to do our best to contain him. He went off tonight.”

After one of the dunks, players on Arizona’s bench covered their heads with their hands and screamed as if in disbelief.

The roller coaster was going up again. The Wildcats had another title.

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

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Twitter: @nathanfenno


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