Wildcats do what they have to do against USC

TUCSON, Ariz. — For Arizona, it’s all about keeping pace with the leaders — and hoping they falter. It’s the only way the Wildcats are going to move up in the Pac-12 with just two regular season games remaining.

Arizona did what it had to Thursday night at McKale Center. They defeated USC 70-54 to earn a 20th win for the second straight time under Sean Miller, improving to 20-9 overall and 11-5 in the conference.

“I told the seniors and the team that 20 wins is a major milestone that we shouldn’t take for granted,’’ Miller said. “A lot of great programs at Arizona had had 20 wins, but at the same time, there have been some good programs that have come up short. It’s an experience that our guys will always carry.”

Arizona did get some help Thursday as Stanford routed Colorado, helping the Wildcats inch back into two-way tie for third with the Buffaloes. But don’t expect Miller to do any conference scoreboard watching. It’s too time consuming and, well, it’s just not him.

“I’m good at blocking out the rest of the world,” Miller said. “I certainly know and think about it, but I try to stay with what we are doing. You can really go stir crazy as a coach, cheering for teams and cheering against teams.”

Of course, he said, he knows the “value of being a top four seed.”

The value could be an extra day of rest. And after another two weeks, that could be important for a team playing so few players, although they went deep into their bench in Thursday night’s win.

But Miller talked about having to face Arizona State on March 4, then having to turn around and possibly play someone that Wednesday in the Pac-12 tournament if his team is not a top-four seed.

“In our case, not only would you have to win four games in four days (to win the conference tournament and an automatic bid into the NCAA tourney), but we’d really have to win five in seven,” Miller said.

Not that Arizona couldn’t do it, but it’d be a tough task. That’s why every basket matters and why Miller has been talking “about life and death” the last month.

“It is what it is,” forward Jesse Perry said of having to win every game the rest of the way to get to the tournament. “I wouldn’t say its nerve-racking, but it is tough being in this position like this. You just have to keep fighting and do what we are doing. Whether we win by one point or however (many) … as long as we get the win. We are going to finish out the season strong.”

That was how they finished Thursday’s game with USC. At times it wasn’t pretty — the first 16 minutes certainly weren’t, as Kevin O’Neill’s Trojans jumped out to a 24-16 lead and had Arizona fans scratching their collective heads.

But normalcy prevailed. Arizona’s best defense was USC’s offense, as the Trojans failed to score in the first half’s final 7:58. That drought allowed the Wildcats to come back and take over, outscoring USC 54-30 in the game’s final 28 minutes.

But it’s not like that wasn’t to be expected.

“We kind of came out sluggish on defense, trading baskets,” said UA’s Kyle Fogg, who had the second double-double of his career with 16 points and 12 rebounds. “We like to hang our hats on our defensive game. We really picked it up. We helped out and had more ball pressure.”

They also had more help from freshman guard Josiah Turner, who had a season-high 15 points. He sparked Arizona’s run — after being down 24-16 — by getting a couple steals and a couple baskets, including the final one at the first half’s buzzer to put the Cats up 28-24.

The key for Turner was to being more aggressive, although that’s always been the key. Miller has been pushing him to be that way since October. On Thursday, during the team’s midday shootaround, it helped that junior leader Solomon Hill told him to go out and be that.

So Turner did, and it resulted in what Miller called his best game of the season.

“The fact that he shot 12 shots tells you that his mind was in the right place,” Miller said. “To me, he didn’t force shots, but took the ones that were presented.

“The light goes on at different times, but I will tell you I’ve invested a lot of time to get him to think in those terms (and be aggressive), to seize those opportunities and take them.”

NOTES:
In what seemed like a surprise move, Miller played Jordin Mayes for two-plus minutes Thursday night. Mayes had been out the last five games with a stress reaction in his left foot. Earlier in the week, Miller said he wasn’t sure if Mayes would play, but Mayes did everything the team did at the full shootaround Thursday and had contact for the first time in a while on Wednesday, saying afterward he was pain-free.

“What I was hoping to do was give him a couple of minutes, and he knew that,” Miller said. “It’s going to be a slow build-up, but the real role he will have is going to be (against) Arizona State.”

Mayes is scheduled to play again Saturday.

Not that he would have played Thursday, but junior center Kyryl Natyazhko was suspended for the game in what Arizona called a violation of team rules.

Natyazhko had played just two minutes over the last five games, having failed to crack Miller’s seven-man rotation in the last couple of months. He is averaging 1.1 points and 1.7 rebounds in 20 appearances. Miller said Natyazhko has served his penalty.