LOS ANGELES — In a season that’s coming to a quick close for Arizona, the Wildcats finally had reason to celebrate.
James Akinjo scored 20 points and Arizona was better on the boards, knocking off No. 17 Southern California 81-72 on Saturday and ending the Pac-12-leading Trojans’ seven-game winning streak.
“It showed we’re a good team and can beat anybody right now,” Akinjo said.
It was the Wildcats’ biggest win of the season. They won’t be playing into March, after the school imposed a postseason ban that will keep them out of the Pac-12 and NCAA Tournaments.
“We’re playing for each other. We’re playing for our program, the pride and the love for the game,” Wildcats coach Sean Miller said. “If we can beat some of these teams down the stretch, it gives us something to feel good about.”
Jordan Brown had 19 points and 13 rebounds. Azuolas Tubelis added 16 points and a career-high 15 rebounds for the Wildcats (15-8, 9-8 Pac-12), who gave Miller his 300th victory in program history while avoiding their first three-game skid of the season.
“We’ve been in some really tough games recently and just weren’t good enough to leave with a victory,” Miller said. “Tonight, we were able to go from start to finish. It says a lot about our group of guys that they continue to fight.”
The Wildcats controlled the boards, 43-36. They have been outrebounded just once this season. The Trojans haven’t won when they’ve been beaten on the boards.
“They’re just as big as us and another top rebounding team,” USC’s Evan Mobley said. “A lot of times we’d go up and tip around and other guys would come down with the rebound.”
Mobley scored 19 of his 23 points in the second half for the Trojans (18-4, 12-3), and Tahj Eaddy added 17 points before fouling out.
“I don’t think entirely we played soft, but in certain possessions we weren’t as tough as we could have been, especially to start the game,” Eaddy said. “They got too many offensive rebounds that gave them confidence and allowed the momentum to carry throughout the game.”
The Trojans played from behind most of the game, trailing by eight in the first half when Mobley had just four points and no rebounds. The standout freshman scored 10 straight points to open the second half, pulling USC into a tie at 41-all. Eaddy tied it again at 44-all on a 3-pointer.
Brown scored four in a row, and the Wildcats hit three consecutive 3-pointers – one from Terrell Brown Jr. and two by Dalen Terry – to go up 57-49.
USC made just 4 of 8 free throws during a stretch in which Arizona’s 7-foot-1 Christian Koloko got called for a technical after he shoved Chevez Goodwin on the baseline. That drew the Trojans within five, but Arizona ran off seven in a row to lead 67-55.
The Wildcats made 14 of 16 free throws over the final 5 1/2 minutes, when they didn’t have a field goal. USC was just 13 of 22 from the line, with Mobley hitting 8 of 12.
The Wildcats led by eight in the first half, which ended with them ahead 37-31. Arizona had a 21-16 advantage on the boards, with Tubelis equaling his career high of 12 by the break.
Arizona: The Wildcats have two scheduled home games remaining until their season ends next weekend. The roster heavy with freshmen and sophomores, and two little-used seniors, has had few highlight moments during the pandemic-effected season.
USC: The Trojans lost for the first time in a month. They have five games remaining until the Pac-12 Tournament, including Utah and UCLA, teams they’ve already beaten.
Arizona: Hosts Washington State on Thursday.
USC: Hosts Oregon on Monday.