Defense again UA’s demise in loss to USC

Now you know why Arizona coach Sean Miller was so peeved last week when he saw his team’s defense take a dive against Washington State. And that came in a win.

He knew what could happen. He was seeing the trend of his defense getting softer than an old pillow.

On Wednesday night, in front of a sparse crowd at the Galen Center in Los Angeles, No. 11 Arizona’s defense was its demise — again — in an 89-78 loss to USC in a game that UA led for just four minutes total.

“Our perimeter defense was poor at best,” Miller said afterward.

The Wildcats had beaten the Trojans four straight times coming in, but Wednesday night’s game was easily Arizona’s worst of the season. And with that, UA is now 23-5 overall and 11-5 in the Pac-12, dropping out of a first-place tie with Oregon. USC improved to 13-15 overall and 8-7 in conference play.

The poor play “couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” Miller said.

Arizona seems to be on a treadmill to nowhere with two games left in the regular season and the Pac-12 tournament just two weeks away.

It wasn’t just the perimeter defense, as Miller cited, but also the defense around the basket. USC had 42 points in the point.

“It was just a complete breakdown,” Miller said. “When you can’t guard on the perimeter, their wings are constantly driving the ball, (so) you have to help. And as you help it leads to bad things.”

After a 12-4 run by the Trojans following an 18-18 tie, the Wildcats just couldn’t keep up. They hung around, though.

When reserve guard Jordin Mayes hit a jumper with 12:23 left to cut USC’s lead to 60-56, it looked like Arizona had another come-from-behind victory in the works.

USC wanted no part of it, extending its lead to double digits at 71-60.

Arizona was able to cut the lead to six a couple times after, the latest at 77-71 when senior Solomon Hill, who had a team-high 21 points, hit two free throws with 3:15 left.

But Arizona just couldn’t stop USC. And that was the theme all night.

USC shot 61.1 percent from the floor, including 6 for 10 from 3-point range. That  from a team that went into the game shooting 42.6 percent from the floor and 34.8 percent from 3-point range.

Miller said it was his team’s worst defensive performance of the year, and that’s saying a lot considering some of his previous comments. Miller emphasized that 78 points should be enough to get a win.

“They had a number of players we couldn’t guard individually,” Miller said.

In particular, Eric Wise, who had 22 points. And Arizona let Jio Fontan, who had 12 points and nine assists, dictate the pace of the game and dominate the backcourt. The Trojans had three more players score in double figures, with Bryon Wesley finishing with 18.

Miller rattled off a couple more names, too, in J.T. Terrell and Aaron Fuller.

Remember that the Wildcats defeated the Trojans 74-50 in Tucson last month. But this is not the same USC team, now 5-2 since that defeat.

And this isn’t the same Arizona team.

“When I addressed our team after the Washington State (game), it wasn’t me trying instigate, make light or give a team that has had a great season not enough credit,” Miller said. “When I watched what I watched in the second half of that game, I know from experience that it’s tough in the next game, especially when it’s a quick turnaround, that
it’s hard to turn it back on.”

And the Cats couldn’t find any type of switch to flip.

Miller cited effort and concentration as the reasons but said he’d have to review the tape for more specifics.

But “at the end of the day,” Miller said, “it was the worst defense of the year,” and while USC had more than a little to do with that, it was also “a lot from us breaking down.”

Too many breakdowns, too many turnovers, too many bad shots, too many bad decisions and not enough defense.

Now the Wildcats have two days solve it prior to Saturday’s game at UCLA. The Bruins, who already own a victory over Arizona in Tucson, moved into a tie for first place and pushed the Wildcats down to third in the Pac-12 standings on Wednesday night by defeating Arizona State.