Before the game against No. 10 Arizona, the bobbleheads of USC coach Kevin O’Neill that were handed out to the energetic Galen Center crowd optimistically nodded their heads up and down.
The real O’Neill had plenty to smile about watching the Trojans (16-12, 8-7) play against his former team, as USC upset the Wildcats (23-5, 12-3) with a thrilling second-half comeback, 65-57.
Trailing 55-52 with 3:23 left in the game, USC closed the game on a 13-2 run, snapping Arizona’s eight-game winning streak.
The Trojans won the game with their defense. They held the Wildcats to a season-low 57 points, and snapped their eight-game winning streak. Arizona’s leading scorer, forward Derrick Williams, only managed to score eight points, which marked the first time this season he scored in single digits.
“What I have seen out of our guys is a resolve to play defensively,” O’Neill said. “If we keep that resolve, we will have a chance to keep winning games. If we do not keep that resolve, we can lose to anybody, anytime, anywhere.”
It is the first time that the Trojans have won three games in a row this season, after wins at California and Stanford last weekend.
“We have a lot of work left to do, but you can see there is a little bit of hope at the end of the tunnel if we keep playing hard,” O’Neill said.
Arizona was the third ranked opponent the Trojans have defeated, after wins against Texas and Tennessee.
Arizona started the game cold, only making two of its first nine shots. The Trojans failed to take advantage of Arizona’s shooting woes, however, only making two of their first six shots.
Midway through the first half, with the Trojans trailing by four, O’Neill picked up a technical foul, and Arizona went on a 6-2 run.
Junior guard Jio Fontan then sparked a Trojans rally, scoring eight of USC’s final 12 points of the half as Arizona’s lead shrank to 28-25 by halftime.
“Jio kept us in the game in the first half,” O’Neill said. “He controlled the game.”
Williams, the reigning Pac-10 Men’s Basketball Player of the Week, who came into the game averaging 19.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game for Arizona, struggled in the first half. He only scored four points on 2-6 shooting and had four rebounds in the opening half.
The Trojans came out of the locker room after halftime and started the second half on a 7-0 run. Once USC regained the lead, it held it until 10:58 left in the game.
Arizona then regained the lead and did not relinquish it until Stepheson made two free throws to give the Trojans a 58-56 lead with just under two minutes left in the game.
Two free throws by Vucevic extended USC’s lead to four points.
Arizona guard Kyle Fogg only made one of two free throws to cut USC’s advantage to 60-57.
The Wildcats decided to foul, making the Trojans win the game at the free-throw line, which they were able to do. USC made 22 of 27 free throws in the game.
“We played with poise and confidence down the stretch,” O’Neill said.
Not everything was positive for USC. The Trojans only had four points off the bench, all from freshman guard Maurice Jones, while the Wildcats’ bench scored 20 points. USC only made one of 10 three-point attempts.
Vucevic led the Trojans with 25 points and 12 rebounds, despite often being double-teamed when he touched the ball.
“Vucevic is a really great player,” Williams said. “He is a top five player in the [conference], and a definite NBA player. He averages [17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game]. That is better than me. He should get more credit.”
Fontan tied his season-high with 21 points, while Stepheson had 12 points and 10 rebounds.
“This win was a big confidence booster,” Fontan said. “We have to keep going. We cannot let up.”
The Trojans will host Arizona State on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in the final home game of the regular season.
The Sun Devils (10-16, 2-12) are led by guard Trent Lockett, who averages 13.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
Arizona State presents a very balanced squad, with 11 players averaging 10 or more minutes per game, compared to seven players for USC.
The Trojans and Sun Devils played Jan. 27, with USC coming out on top, 63-61. In that game, Vucevic had 26 points and 12 rebounds, helping the Trojans earn their first conference road win. USC struggled to contain guard Rihards Kuksiks, who had a season-high 22 points.
Coming into Thursday night, the Sun Devils had lost nine of their last 10 games.
Note: This story reflects an updated version that ran Friday, Feb. 25.