Wednesday night produced an unfamiliar sight at the Galen Center: Students storming the court. And a well-deserved court storming at that.
Just three days after a 16-point home loss to UCLA, the Trojans set a season high by shooting a blistering 61.1 percent from the field, then made critical free throws down the stretch to hold on for an 89-78 upset over No. 11 Arizona (23-5, 11-5 Pac-12).
For a team that has had more ups and downs than a roller coaster, the stars all aligned for the Trojans on Wednesday.
“Tonight was our night,” USC interim head coach Bob Cantu said. “A win like this just means everything. If we can beat Arizona, if we can beat UCLA on the road and Stanford on the road, that can mean everything.”
Against one of the top teams in the Pac-12, USC came to play from the start.
Mired in a monthlong slump, senior forward Eric Wise banked the ball off the glass while drawing the foul on the Trojans’ first possession, and the Trojans just took off from there. The two sides went back and forth over the first 10 minutes until USC went on a 7-0 spurt to take a 30-22 lead with 7:19 left in the first half. This lead stretched to 10 toward the end of the half, but Arizona went on a mini-run to make it 42-36 at the break.
Every time Arizona made some semblance of a run, though, the Trojans answered with an easy layup or open jumper produced through the best ball movement the team has shown all season.
“We continued to reverse the ball,” Cantu said. “We moved it, we drove it, we pushed it to the rim. Every time they were coming back on us, we were able to respond with a basket. It was a complete team effort.”
Wise led all scorers with a season-high 22 points, shooting nine-of-12 from the field and finding his way through the paint for an easy layup, possession after possession. Sophomore guard Byron Wesley had 18 points, including an eight-for-eight showing from the free-throw line, while junior shooting guard J.T. Terrell had 14 and senior point guard Jio Fontan and senior forward Aaron Fuller each had 12 for the Trojans.
Junior center Omar Oraby fouled out with 4:23 to go, but made a big impact off the bench with eight rebounds, five blocks and countless altered shots on defense in the post thanks to his seven-foot-two size. His play inside was a big reason USC outscored Arizona 42-32 in the paint.
Yet, for all the Trojans’ dominance from the floor, the Wildcats would not fade quietly into the night. After Fuller scored a layup to give USC a 60-50 lead with 13:25 left, Arizona answered with a pair of 3-pointers from Arizona guards Kevin Parrom and Jordin Mayes to cut the lead to four.
But, as soon as Arizona fans let their voices be heard, USC’s play quickly quieted them.
USC promptly went on a 7-0 run to push the lead back to 11. The Trojans made all 12 of their free throws in the final four minutes, and the Wildcats never cut the deficit below seven.
“We weathered the storm for the most part,” Fontan said. “It just comes down to execution.”
The win comes as a stark contrast from the last time the Trojans and Wildcats faced off, when USC was humbled, 74-50, in Tucson, Ariz. In that game, USC shot a season-worst 28.1 percent, in stark contrast to its hot shooting on Wednesday.
“It didn’t make any sense, but that’s what happens sometime,” Wise said about the difference between the two games. “I think we can compete with anybody if everybody comes ready to play.”
Cantu improves to 6-5 since taking over for former head coach Kevin O’Neill, and it seems as if his team could be turning a corner, this time for good.
“I knew we had talent,” Cantu said. “I knew we could beat people. We just want to play our best basketball when we get to Vegas.”
USC will take on Arizona State in the season’s final home game on Saturday at noon. The Pac-12 Conference tournament begins on March 13.