It might not have been under ideal circumstances, but longtime assistant coach Bob Cantu finally got the opportunity to lead the Trojans.
Cantu, the associate head coach who has been with USC (19-14, 10-8) for 10 seasons under five different head coaches, was promoted after Athletic Director Pat Haden suspended head coach Kevin O’Neill for the remainder of the Pac-10 tournament following an incident with an Arizona fan at a local hotel.
Cantu’s first test came against the top-seeded Wildcats (27-6, 14-4) in the semifinal of the Pac-10 tournament on Friday, as the Trojans fell despite a late rally, 67-62.
USC refused to place the blame for the loss on O’Neill.
“[O’Neill] is a big part of our team, but he is not going to go out there and play for us,” said junior forward Nikola Vucevic.
Displaying leadership in his coach’s absence, senior guard Marcus Simmons, a captain, posted a career-high 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting.
“Everyone who knows Marcus knows what he is capable of,” said junior guard Jio Fontan. “He broke out today.”
The team responded well initially under Cantu, who only found out that he was coaching the squad three hours before tipoff. With Arizona deciding to double-team Vucevic, Simmons found himself open, and scored eight points in an 11-0 USC run that gave the Trojans an early 15-9 lead.
By halftime, the Wildcats led 33-28 on 56 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Arizona led by as many as 12 points in the second half. The Trojans, however, battled back, cutting the Wildcats’ lead to three with 48 seconds left on a three-pointer by Fontan.
After two free throws by Arizona sophomore Derrick Williams, Vucevic converted a lay-up, making the score 65-62 Arizona with 4.7 seconds.
Williams then made two free throws to put the Wildcats up five points, and with no timeouts remaining, USC did not have enough time to make up the deficit.
Vucevic bounced back after only recording seven points and five rebounds in the quarterfinal game against Cal. He had 16 points and 12 rebounds, recording his twenty-first double-double, which leads the Pac-10.
The Trojans’ lack of depth hurt them down the stretch. Arizona had 10 players log seven or more minutes, compared to only six for USC. The Wildcats had 23 points off the bench, while the Trojans had four.
Williams, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, appeared motivated after the Trojans held him to a season-low eight points in the last meeting between the two squads. He finished with 20 points and six rebounds.
Arizona advances to the championship game of the Pac-10 tournament to face the winner of No. 7 seeded Oregon and No. 3 seeded Washington on Saturday at 3:00 p.m. at Staples Center.
The Trojans must now wait until Selection Sunday to find out if they are one of the 68 teams chosen to play in the NCAA tournament, or if they will compete in the NIT tournament.
“We have some great wins,” Cantu said about USC’s tournament resume. “Everybody’s saying we have bad losses, but I personally think that great wins mean more than the bad losses when you look at the big picture.”