No.1 Arizona off to best start in program history - The Explorer: Sports

No.1 Arizona off to best start in program history

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Posted: Monday, January 13, 2014 9:03 am

Arizona set a program record for consecutive wins to open a season and, in the process, swept the Southern California road trip Sunday night for the first time in nine years. But it took a more-than-typical shooting night from junior T.J. McConnell, who scored a season-high 19 points and tied a personal best with five 3-pointers in the top-ranked Wildcats' 73-53 win over USC at the Galen Center. McConnell, who came in shooting just 26.7 percent from beyond the arc, said he could hear USC say "make him shoot." Challenge accepted and conquered.

"They were falling tonight and it's about time," said McConnell, who made 7 of 12 shots - including 5 of 7 from long range - and added six assists.

"I decided just to keep shooting and I was shooting it well tonight."

Brandon Ashley matched his teammate with a season-best 19 points. Nick Johnson chipped in 15 and five steals and Aaron Gordon collected 12 and eight rebounds for the Wildcats, who shot 50 percent in the second half.

Coming off Thursday's triumph at UCLA, the win pushed UA (17-0, 4-0 Pac-12 Conference) past the school's previous record set by the 1931-32 team. It also secured the first L.A. sweep for the Wildcats since 2004-05, with UA recording a 3-15 record in that span and before this season's trip.

"We're really excited about it," Wildcats head coach Sean Miller said of the feat. "This is something that I think all of us will cherish. Any school record you break at Arizona, in the basketball program, is a real record because of the great tradition that we have."

Leading by four at half, UA doubled its lead in less than a minute of second-half action and had it in double digits inside the first five. Through the first 4 1/2 minutes, USC (9-7, 0-3 Pac-12) missed its first four shots and turned it over four times.

Coming into the game, opponents were shooting 36.4 percent in second halves against Arizona.

"In our locker room at halftime, we always try and discuss what's not really working for us on the defensive and offensive ends," Ashley said. "We make small adjustments that we like to make sure we're changing the game in a better way for us."

After connecting once early in the contest, McConnell found a soaring Gordon for a reverse alley-oop to make the score 48-38 with 12:17 remaining.

Strahinja Gavrilovic answered with five consecutive points to cut the USC deficit in half. But UA restored its double-digit lead and extended it to 59-47 on Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's mid-range jump shot with 4:17 left.

The Wildcats closed the final 8:31 on an 25-10 run and forced 12 of the Trojans' 18 turnovers in the second half.

Byron Wesley scored 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting to pace USC, which shot 42.3 percent from the field.

"Arizona played a very good second half," Trojans head coach Andy Enfield said. "We definitely turned the ball over too many times and had too many possessions where we didn't score. Against a good team like Arizona, you have to convert."

After the teams combined on a 2-of-12 start in the opening minutes, the Wildcats brought some life to the restless crowd on a McConnell-to-Ashley alley-oop to put UA ahead 6-2 inside the first four minutes.

The dunk started the first of many "U of A" chants in a building that sounded much like an Arizona home game.

"It makes it a lot better for us," Miller said of the support. "It's not a hostile environment. I'd say 30 percent of the the people tonight, if not more, were Arizona fans."

The Trojans eventually awoke from their slumber and Gavrilovic's 3-pointer at the 10:27 mark tied the game at 16. A traditional three-point play from Wesley, sparked by Omar Oraby's block on Johnson on the other end, then gave USC its first lead at 21-18 exactly two minutes later.

The Trojans battled throughout the half against the nation's sixth-best field goal percentage defense, scoring 22 points in the paint for a plus-10 advantage and scoring eight on the fast break. USC finished with a 40-26 advantage in the paint and did not allow a fastbreak point in the second half.

"I'm not happy. But I'm proud of our effort," said Enfield, whose team became the first this season to not get outrebounded by Arizona.

The teams were tied at 30 on the boards.

Gordon's emphatic block on J.T. Terrell's dunk attempt and his ensuing layup highlighted an 11-0 Wildcats run to retake the lead late. Before the half was over, however, Pe'Shon Howard snuck in a buzzer-beating reverse layup to pull USC within 34-31 heading into the break.

McConnell and Ashley combined for 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting, but the rest of the Wildcats combine to convert just 4 of 16 through the first 20 minutes.

"Tonight, Brandon was the best player on our team," Miller said.

McConnell, typically buried in the team's scoring column, was aggressive early and made all three of his 3-point attempts en route to 11 points in the half.

"I think he's focused so much on getting his teammates involved and being that pass-first point guard, and a guy who does so many of the other things for his team," Miller said. "It's not always easy to then make a 3. We've talked to him over the last couple of weeks about just take the one that presents itself."

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