Things didn’t go well for Arizona the last time it faced Southern California in Los Angeles. With a Pac-10 tournament title ultimately on the line, the Wildcats can’t afford another poor effort against the Trojans.
The top-seeded and No. 16 Wildcats look to avenge that defeat as they face the Trojans, who will be without suspended coach Kevin O’Neill, in Friday night’s semifinal at Staples Center.
Riding an eight-game winning streak at the time, then-10th ranked Arizona could not hold a three-point halftime lead and shot 35.8 percent to fall 65-57 at USC on Feb. 24.
Though the Wildcats (26-6) split the season series with the Trojans, the memory of that defeat still lingers. Another performance like that, and not only will Arizona fail to extend its record number of tournament titles to five but also lose some momentum heading into the NCAA tournament.
“In March, it’s all about ‘Did you win or lose?’” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “If you win, you play another day and we all know we are in for a difficult challenge against USC.
“We are playing a quality team and we need to be at our best to beat them on a neutral court.”
Fourth-seed USC (19-13), which might need to win this event to earn an NCAA tournament bid, made an improbable run to the Pac-10 tournament championship as the sixth seed in 2009.
The Trojans are back in the tournament after being banned last season after self-imposing sanctions for illegal benefits received in 2007-2008.
Leading scorer Nikola Vucevic was a freshman on the 2009 team and hopes to guide the Trojans to a similar run as the underdog this year.
“We get more fired up for better teams and we play more aggressively,” said the 6-foot-10 Vucevic, who had 25 points with 12 rebounds against Arizona last month.
Those hopes for making a similar run, however, took a strange turn Friday evening when the school suspended O’Neill for the remainder of the Pac-10 tournament after the coach got into a verbal confrontation with an Arizona booster Thursday. O’Neill was a former assistant for the Wildcats under Lute Olson and coach there for the 2007-08 season.
Vucevic also helped contain Pac-10 player of year Derrick Williams (18.9 points per game), who finished with a season-low eight points at USC.
“He’s the best player in the Pac-10 and you want to do better than him,” said Vucevic, who averages 17.3 points. “We did a good job as a team stopping him.”
Williams, however, had 22 points and seven rebounds in Arizona’s 78-69 win over Oregon State on Thursday.
While the 6-foot-8 sophomore is trying to downplay the revenge factor, he knows the Trojans present a serious challenge and one where his team needs to rise to the occasion.
“Having the No. 1 seed, we’re one step closer to the Pac-10 championship,” said Williams, who scored 20 points in an 82-73 win over USC on Jan. 29. “It’s like a home game for them. They play right up the street, so we have to match their intensity and hopefully we can.”
While Vucevic had his streak of eight straight double-doubles snapped with seven points and five boards, Alex Stepheson had 14 with 16 rebounds in USC’s 70-56 quarterfinal win over California on Thursday.
Stepheson has recorded double-doubles in four of the last five games, including a 12-point, 10-rebound effort versus Arizona.
Arizona won the last two tournament meetings between the schools since the event returned from an 11-year hiatus in 2002 - the same year the Wildcats beat USC 81-71 for their last title.