Arizona's grip on first place in Pac-10 loosens with loss at USC

LOS ANGELES — Staring at a freshly printed box score following his team's 65-57 loss to USC on Thursday night, Arizona coach Sean Miller didn't need long to identify the statistic that irked him most.

"We had two assists on 19 field goals," Miller said with a grimace. "That's impossible."

Whereas Arizona averaged 81.5 points per game during its eight-game win streak with unselfish passing, crisp ball movement and a healthy dose of Derrick Williams, the Wildcats abandoned that approach against USC. Williams went long stretches of the second half without touching the ball and finished with just eight points in 36 minutes, snapping a streak of 36 consecutive games in which he scored in double figures.

Some of the credit goes to a USC defense that walled off the paint, harassed Williams and dared Arizona's guards to win the game from the perimeter. Some of the blame goes to a Wildcats backcourt that attempted 19 3-pointers, hoisted up quick shots and displayed uncharacteristic impatience.

Either way, it's a trend that cannot continue if Arizona is going to win its first Pac-10 title since 2005 and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

"USC's game plan was to really pack the middle in and make it difficult for Derrick to score," Arizona forward Jesse Perry said. "We could have still run our sets and gotten easy buckets, but I guess we chose not to tonight. It's really on us. They had a great plan, but we've beat teams like this plenty of nights."

The impact of the loss for Arizona is that its stranglehold on the Pac-10 race has loosened somewhat. With just three conference games left to play, the Wildcats now lead second-place UCLA by just one game heading into Saturday's showdown between the Bruins and Wildcats at Pauley Pavilion.

While Miller scoffed at the notion that a loss at this stage could be a positive for Arizona, Williams said he thought it might help the Wildcats refocus.

"Honestly, I think it was good for us to lose," the Pac-10 player of the year candidate said. "We were getting too big-headed, thinking, ‘We can beat everybody, we can beat anybody.' I'm kind of glad we lost and came down to earth."

Arizona wouldn't have found itself searching for silver linings after the game had it not surrendered a 15-3 USC run to close the game. Trojans forward Nikola Vucevic scored 10 of his team's points during that game-ending spurt, the exclamation point on a 25-point, 12-rebound masterpiece in front of three rows of NBA scouts.

Miller lavishly praised Vucevic as one of the sport's unsung talents, but he acknowledged it was his team's lack of poise or intelligence on offense that contributed most to the loss. In particular, he singled out a pair of sequences in the final three minutes in which point guard MoMo Jones careened into the teeth of the defense and had a pair of layups blocked rather than kicking it out to an open teammate.

"When you drive at the end of the game and you create a crowd, the answer is to pass," Miller said. "When you shoot it and it gets smashed off the board, you have to question the shot. We had some questionable shots and decisions, but again it goes to two assists on 19 field goals."

There have been games this season when Williams has been good enough to bail his teammates out when they struggled, but he never found a rhythm against USC's strategy of packing the paint and sending two and three defenders at him when he drove.

The only time Williams appeared close to rediscovering his groove was at the seven-minute mark of the second half when Arizona called back-to-back isolation plays for him and he turned them into a driving layup and a pair of free throws.

Asked why the Wildcats didn't go back to that play down the stretch, Williams smiled and admitted he wasn't sure.

"I have no answer for that, to be honest with you," he said. "I don't call the plays around here. We were just trying to show them different plays, I guess."

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