TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona rallied from a double-digit deficit to win for the second time in three days. A few years ago, a sweep of the Pac-12’s Southern California schools would have been a season highlight, not matter how the Wildcats did it.
Expectations have changed in the desert. Now one of the nation’s top teams, Arizona no longer wants to be the scrappy underdog. The Wildcats want to be the dominating team.
Aari McDonald scored 30 points and Cate Reese added 25, helping No. 7 Arizona rally from an 11-point deficit to outlast Southern California 78-77 on Sunday.
“The progression of the program, getting a split, stealing a game here in there is how it used to be,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “Now we are expected to win that and it’s a very different role none of us have been in.”
The Wildcats (3-0, 2-0 Pac-12) picked up their first marquee win of the season on Friday, beating No. 9 UCLA for their third win in the past four games against top-10 teams. Arizona found itself in another tight game against the Trojans (1-2, 0-2) and fell into an 11-point hole early in the third quarter.
The Wildcats rallied behind McDonald and Reese, who keyed a 22-3 run that carried into the fourth quarter to put them up eight.
Arizona still had a hard time shaking USC, needing to hold on instead of roll on to an easy win.
“I don’t want any more gritty wins or close wins like this,” McDonald said. “It just shows that this team is competitive, we want to win. A couple years ago, we wouldn’t have come back from these deficits”
USC fell behind 77-72 with 22 seconds left, but kept fighting. Madison Campbell hit a 3-pointer and Endyia Rogers made two free throws after Reese went 1 for 2 to cut it to one, but the Trojans couldn’t get the ball back for a final shot.
Endyia and Angel Jackson led USC with 18 points each.
“We did a great job of getting punched in the mouth, losing the lead then coming back and taking the lead,” Trojans coach Mark Trakh said. “We’ll be a better team in a month and a half and that’s the main thing.”
The Trojans opened one of the Pac-12’s toughest road trips by hanging with Arizona State before losing 63-58.
Arizona grinded out a 68-65 win over No. 9 UCLA and was hoping to avoid a letdown against USC.
Sunday’s game started off as an offensive duel, the teams combining to make 17 of 31 shots in a tight first quarter.
The shooting pace slowed slightly in the second half, but it remained close. USC spread the scoring around and made 15 of 29 shots in the first half to lead 37-34. McDonald carried the load for Arizona, scoring 12 points on 6-of-12 shooting.
USC continued the torrid shooting pace, making four of its first eight shots to stretch the lead to 53-42. McDonald and Reese answered, combining for 11 straight points to tie the game at 53-all. Arizona closed the third quarter on an 18-3 run to lead 60-56.
Arizona went up 77-72 on two free throws by Reese with 22 seconds left and held on after Campbell’s 3 cut it to two.
“The kids executed our offense really well, just Arizona’s a great team,” Trakh said. “I was proud of our kids.”
USC had a top-10 team on the ropes, but couldn’t finish it off to leave the desert with an 0-2 road trip.
McDonald and Reese showed why they’re two of the Pac-12’s best players and carried the Wildcats to a hard-fought win.
Forward Lauren Ware arrived at Arizona as one of the nation’s top recruits in basketball and volleyball. The 6-foot-5 freshman was expected to be a two-sport athlete in Tucson, but chose to play basketball this year after the coronavirus pushed the start of the season back.
Ware had 12 points and 10 rebounds combined in the opening two games, but showed why the Wildcats were so excited to have her in the game against USC.
Ware finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds, made 5 of 9 shots and blocked a shot in 27 minutes off the bench.
“Lauren is phenomenal,” Barnes said. “She’s going to be a star in this conference and a key player for us for a long time. I’m not surprised by her performance and the minutes she’s getting.”
USC hosts rival UCLA next Sunday.
Arizona hosts rival Arizona State on Thursday.