McConnell steps into scorer’s role as Arizona reaches 17-0

Arizona's T.J. McConnell hits one of his career-best five 3-pointers en route to a season-high 20 points.

LOS ANGELES — Probably the last lesson a pure point guard learns is that unselfishness includes taking the open shots.

T.J. McConnell is getting there, and that just serves to make No. 1 Arizona all the more dangerous as it heads into the meat of the Pac-12 season and the NCAA tournament that is certain to follow.

McConnell had his season-high 19 points and tied a career high with five 3-pointers in the Wildcats’ 73-53 victory over USC at Galen Center on Sunday, a win that enabled Arizona (17-0, 4-0) to set a school record for victories to start a season.

McConnell found the perimeter unoccupied when USC went to a 2-3 zone defense about eight minutes into the game, and the Trojans dared him to beat them from outside. So he did, going 7 for 12 from the field and 5 of 7 from 3-point range.

"I heard them saying, ‘Make him shoot,’ so I decided to keep shooting," McConnell said. "I was shooting it well tonight, and when they came out I tried to penetrate and get my teammates the ball, and they finished well." 

He took it as a challenge.

"Most definitely. If they don’t think I can shoot, I’m going to try to prove them wrong. You usually try to set up the offense and get other people the ball, but tonight they were playing off me and I just hit shots. They were falling tonight. It’s about time. I haven’t been hitting them in a while."

McConnell had made only 8 of 30 3-point attempts entering the game, in large part because his outside offense was not needed in a balanced attack that also can get perimeter points from Nick Johnson and Gabe York. But McConnell has shown range before. He made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in his two seasons at Duquesne.

Sean Miller and teammates have been reminding McConnell lately that as good as his play-making skills are — and he entered the weekend among the national leaders with an average of 6.3 assists — his shot gives the team a deeper arsenal. 

"One of the points we made to him was this: In the quest to be the pass-first guard every time, if he passes up opportunities that present themselves for him, he actually starts taking away from his teammates because (opponents) don’t have to guard him," Miller said.

"He was aggressive tonight. I thought every shot he took tonight was a good one."

McConnell also had four rebounds and six assists, and he played all but two minutes in the second half after York suffered what Miller said was a left ankle injury and did not play the final 20 minutes.

"I’ve been trying to get him to shoot all year, honestly," said Johnson, who had 15 points, three assists and no turnovers in 35 minutes. "He finally did it, so that’s definitely what we need. It opens up a lot of other shots for other people and a lot of other passes.  He was still right on his average" with six assists.

Brandon Ashley set his season high with 19 points, one short of his career high of 20 set against Long Beach State last season, while finding himself open for mid-range jump shots in open pockets of the Trojans’ zone. He was 7 of 10 from the field and also had four assists.

If they don’t think I can shoot, I’m going to try to prove them wrong. You usually try to set up the offense and get other people the ball, but tonight they were playing off me and I just hit shots.

Arizona guard T.J. McConnell

"We’ve faced a lot of zones," Ashley said. "We are starting to build that comfort level in the zone — being able to find open guys is something we are developing.

As for McConnell, "the fact that he is becoming more aggressive is really helpful for our team," Ashley continued. "He’s definitely a pass-first kind of guy, so a lot of times teams will kind of step off from him or won’t really play him as hard. The fact that he is shooting the ball now, that’s really big for us. He can make that shot, and he can really change a game."

USC was within five points with nine minutes to go, but it never felt as if Arizona was in danger. The Trojans had more turnovers (12) than baskets (nine) in the second half, and with Ashley and McConnell continuing to find their range, the Wildcats pulled away.

So Arizona will take a record start into its meeting against archrival Arizona State at McKale Center on Thursday, proud of its start but not about to remove the blinders that have allowed the players to maintain their focus thus far.

"This is something that all of us will cherish, because any school record you break at Arizona in the basketball program is a real record because of the great tradition that we have," Miller said of the 17-0 start, which broke a tie with the 1931-32 team.

"We have a lot of pride in what we have done. Like I’ve said before, if it’s the No. 1 ranking or winning as many games at the start of the season, it’s not as if it is the end goal. This is our path."

Johnson said he envisioned such a start.

"It doesn’t surprise me," said Johnson, a team leader. "I actually was talking to (graduated point guard) Mark Lyons after last year. I was telling him we are going to break our streak that we had last year. He was like, ‘Oh, no, you might get 12.’

"We take it one game at a time, and I think that’s how we keep it going. If we look ahead to Colorado or Oregon, then ASU might get us. So we have to take it one game at a time and focus for each individual opponents."

Forward Aaron Gordon drew the assignment of covering USC leading scorer Byron Wesley, and he kept Wesley from making much of an impact. Wesley had 18 points, hitting his season average, but four of those points came in the last 90 seconds, when the Wildcats were in complete control and not challenging every shot.

30 — rebounds for both Arizona and USC, the first time in 17 games this season that the Wildcats did not rebound their opponent.

— Before its Los Angeles sweep over the weekend, Arizona was 4-13 against UCLA and USC since 2004-05, the last time it swept both schools here.

— The Andy Enfield era has gotten off to a slow start in Pac-12 play. The Trojans have lost to UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona by 34, 19 and 20 points. Next up: a trip to the mountain schools, Utah and Colorado.

— Arizona has won seven of the last nine games against USC.

— Gabe York, who played such a big role in the win at UCLA with three 3-pointers and 12 points, left the locker room after the game without a shoe on his swollen left foot, but Miller seemed to indicate that it was not serious injury. 

— USC played its first game against a No. 1 team since falling to Stanford 76-67 on Feb. 19, 2004.

Among the celebrities in the house were former Arizona forwards Luke Walton and Jordan Hill and former USC guard Nick Young. Matt Leinart, who quarterbacked USC to two national championships before going to the NFL to play for the Arizona Cardinals, drew the biggest ovation. This was a college crowd.