USC guard Kyle Sturdivant went crashing into the video boards while the Arizona Wildcats went flying down the floor.
Late in the first half Thursday night, Sturdivant tried to sneak behind the Arizona defense in transition. He tried to save a long pass from going out of bounds. He tried to get a USC rally going.
Instead, his diving heave ended up in the hands of Wildcats guard Nico Mannion. He drove the floor and found teammate Jemari Baker Jr. at the right elbow. Baker’s three-pointer missed, but Wildcats freshman Josh Green exploded into the paint for a put-back dunk.
The sequence gave No. 23 Arizona a 12-point lead moments before halftime in USC’s eventual 85-80 loss at McKale Center, epitomizing a Trojans defeat that was long on effort but short on execution.
“It’s not fun when you play from behind most of the game,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Give our guys credit. They battled. They played hard. They finally got some stops … [Arizona] didn’t have a field goal in the last 8 ½ minutes. But you’ve got to play 40 minutes.”
Adversity began pregame for USC (17-6, 6-4 Pac-12) when Enfield benched seniors Jonah Mathews and Nick Rakocevic to begin the game for a violation of team rules. When the pair entered after the first media timeout, USC was only down three. But before long, Arizona used a 16-5 run to open up a double-digit lead.
USC chipped away temporarily, using an eight-point scoring burst to pull back within three. But Arizona (16-6, 6-3) caught fire again over the final 3:29 of the half, feasting on more USC giveaways to rip off a 12-3 spurt capped with Green’s thunderous throwdown.
“They really physically and athletically hurt us in the first half on the boards,” Enfield said. “They got some easy baskets and we had some really dumb turnovers, live-ball turnovers that led to some transition baskets for them. That hurt us. Gave them an opportunity to get out in front.”
Onyeka Okongwu, who led USC in points (23) and rebounds (eight), answered with a jumper to make it a 10-point game at the intermission. After the Trojans’ deficit grew to a game-high 20 early in the second half, Rakocevic (18 points, seven rebounds) and guard Daniel Utomi (22 points, three rebounds) each found a groove.
Rakocevic (18 points, seven rebounds) scored 12 of USC’s 14 points during a five-minute stretch that trimmed Arizona’s 15-point lead to seven. Later, Utomi hit a jumper with 2:46 remaining to make it 76-70 and buried his fourth three-pointer with 30 seconds left to cut the score to 81-77.
However, the Trojans couldn’t come all the way back against an Arizona team that finished with five players in double figures, an 18-5 edge in points off turnovers and 40 free-throw attempts.
“We have to play team defense,” Enfield said. “Although we played hard at times, we had some breakdowns on rotations and allowed them to get to the foul line 40 times.”
In a Pac-12 race that has felt like a state fair bumper-car ride, with teams bouncing up and down the standings almost seemingly at random, USC slid a few spots after suffering its first pair of consecutive losses this season and 10th straight defeat in Tucson.
After entering Thursday tied for second with Colorado and only a half-game behind Oregon for the conference lead, USC finished the game in fourth and could fall further if it doesn’t salvage a weekend split at Arizona State on Saturday.
“It’s hard to win on the road in this league,” Enfield said. “We have five road wins, three neutral wins. We’ve been pretty good on the road. At least we compete and have a chance. So we’ve got to go compete on Saturday, give it a shot.”