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Playing without its coach, USC suffers costly loss to Arizona

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LOS ANGELES — Three hours before tipoff of a game expected to determine USC's NCAA tournament fate, associate head coach Bob Cantu gathered the Trojans together in one of their hotel rooms and rocked them with some stunning news.

USC would have to play its biggest game of the season without its head coach.

"Unfortunate," point guard Jio Fontan said.

"Disappointing," forward Nikola Vucevic called it.

"I was a little shocked," admitted center Alex Stepheson.

Despite the absence of coach Kevin O'Neill as a result of a suspension stemming from a verbal altercation with an Arizona booster the previous night, USC put a scare into the top-seeded Wildcats in Friday night's first of two Pac-10 semifinals. The Trojans relied on frenzied defense and trademark hustle to stay within striking distance, trimming a 12-point second-half deficit to three before falling 67-62.

"I've worked for a lot of good coaches, but I truly value my friendship with coach O'Neill," said Cantu, who served as USC's head coach Friday night. "It's unfortunate he wasn't able to coach this game, but I'm really proud of the effort our guys gave. I thought we really fought, we played really hard and we really defended."

Neither sob stories nor moral victories may be enough to sway the NCAA selection committee to to include USC in the field of 68 after this loss. The Trojans (19-14, 10-8) boast marquee wins over the likes of Texas, Tennessee, Arizona, UCLA and Washington, yet they also suffered unsightly early-season losses to lightly regarded Rider, Bradley and TCU. {YSP:MORE}

Asked after the game to deliver his best sales pitch to the selection committee, Cantu said USC had proven itself as one of the nation's 68 best teams and argued that "the great wins should mean more than the bad losses." Arizona coach Sean Miller also made an unsolicited case for the Trojans, insisting they should "have the opportunity to be in the tournament that they deserve to be in and that's the NCAA tournament."

"I thought this was our best win of the season, and the reason is we respect USC a great deal," Miller said. "That senior class, you really have to appreciate those kids' efforts, not only tonight but the whole season."

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It's a testament to Cantu that he was able to coax an inspired effort from the Trojans under surreal circumstances.

USC athletic director Pat Haden released a statement late Thursday night once reports of an incident involving O'Neill first surfaced. O'Neill then spent Friday morning in damage control mode instead of preparing for Arizona, expressing regret to various media outlets while also clarifying that the altercation never got physical.

By 3 p.m., Haden made the decision to suspend O'Neill. He then informed Cantu he'd be serving as head coach for the first time since stepping in at Cuesta College for one game in the late '90s when the head coach got suspended for being ejected from the previous game.

The only time Cantu deviated from O'Neill's game plan was throwing in a few wrinkles from his tenure as an assistant under Tim Floyd and Henry Bibby in hopes of surprising Arizona. USC players said Cantu guided the team capably despite his lack of head coaching experience, though they noted his style of positive reinforcement was in stark contrast to the notoriously loud-mouthed O'Neill.

"I think coach Cantu did a great job," Vucevic. "He really controlled the team well. He didn't yell at us. He didn't get crazy. He was patient. He was calling good plays. It was probably tougher without coach K.O. because we weren't used to it, but the coaching staff did a great job."

Indeed, it seemed the biggest reason USC lost was not a lack of preparation but an inability to get Vucevic involved in the offense for most of the night.

Whereas Vucevic erupted for 25 points and 12 boards three weeks ago in a 65-57 USC victory over Arizona at Galen Center, he had only four points in the first 29 minutes on  Saturday before a late surge to finish with 16. Not only did Arizona star Derrick Williams effectively deny him the ball and push him off the block, the Wildcats often sent a double team each time USC did manage to get an entry pass to him.

The benefactor was Marcus Simmons, a defensive stopper whom Arizona sagged off of in order to provide help on Vucevic down low. Simmons scorched the Wildcats for a season-high 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting, even sinking a trio of threes despite only hitting seven the entire rest of the season combined.

"You could tell he was playing with a lot at stake," Miller said. "He answered the bell on a couple open threes, but we wanted to take his defender and really try to the best we could to provide extra help. If we had to do it all over again, I think we'd do the same thing."

USC's best chance to forge a tie came with just under three minutes remaining when Vucevic blocked a Kevin Parrom baseline jumper with the Trojans trailing by just three. Vucevic was not rewarded for his effort, however, because Arizona came up with the loose ball and swung it around the perimeter to Jamelle Horne, who buried a wide-open corner 3-pointer.

Williams then scored six of his team-high 20 points to finish off the game.

The frustration at perhaps letting their NCAA tournament hopes slip away was palpable in the USC locker room after the game, but the Trojans to a man refused to blame O'Neill's absence for the loss.

"We understand things happen," Fontan said. "At the end of the day, he's our coach, but he's human. He's a man and he made mistakes. Whatever the case, I don't know much about it, but whether he was right or wrong, I'm behind him."

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