Arizona Wildcats made right move and steered clear of O’Neill talk before gameby Javier Morales on Mar. 11, 2011, under Sports
LOS ANGELES — An Arizona fan lofted a “Hotel Bar” direction sign Friday night, in full view of the large scoreboard screen, drawing laughter from the Staples Center crowd.
The joke ended in the stands and never impacted the Wildcats during their 67-62 victory a team without USC coach Kevin O’Neill, who was suspended by the school for improper conduct after a bar-hopping Thursday night.
O’Neill and his wife, Roberta, allegedly got into a verbal confrontation with UA booster Paul Weitman, a close personal friend of former UA coach Lute Olson. This occurred after O’Neill was observed drinking alcoholic beverages and carrying on conversations with Arizona fans at an establishment adjacent to Staples Center, where he and his wife live in a suite.
After UA coach Sean Miller left the interview room following the Wildcats’ win over USC, he mentioned that O’Neill’s absence was never a distraction for his team.
“I don’t know if it was for them, but it wasn’t for us,” Miller said. “We were focused on what we had to do to win the game.”
Miller did not specifically address the Wildcats in the locker room about O’Neill, which turned out to be a sound move. The 16th-ranked Wildcats (27-6) played like they did not take anything for granted.
To a player in the locker room, the Wildcats believed USC was affected by O’Neill not being around. They also claimed not much was spoken among themselves about O’Neill’s absence before the game.
“No, no,” UA senior Jamelle Horne said with a smile. “We all know K.O., so it was nothing too far out of line.”
When Arizona beat USC 82-73 at McKale Center on Jan. 29, Horne pointed at O’Neill after making a basket. O’Neill responded to Horne’s action after the game, telling reporters, “I’m waiting for the NBA career to take off.”
When Horne was asked if he had a comment about O’Neill given their history — it is no secret O’Neill was not fond of Horne when coaching Arizona in 2007-08 — Horne did not bite.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a history,” he said, continuing to smile. “He was a coach in my past. He did what he did at Arizona. He’s moved on and done great job with USC this season. Hopefully, he can get back and coach his team in the tournament.”
Arizona guard Kyle Fogg said without hesitation that he could tell O’Neill’s absence set USC back.
“Definitely,” Fogg said. “I am sure it was a distraction for them. They’re used to seeing him on the bench; it had to affect them.”
He recalled while at Brea Olinda (Calif.) High School having to play a game without coach Bob Terry, who was ill.
“It was a lot different without him there,” Fogg said. “Mentally, it’s just not the same.”
USC center Nikola Vucevic quipped, “It was different. When K.O.’s there, he yells a lot and we did not hear a lot of yelling today.”
He looked over at O’Neill’s replacement for the game, Bob Cantu, who smiled sheepishly on the other side of the interview podium. Cantu joked that O’Neill told him, “You better win.”
Cantu was forced to be the replacement head coach at the junior-college level after head coach Marvin Menzies (now at New Mexico State) was suspended for a game after an ejection. He shook his head in bewilderment of that episode as well. Nevertheless, he said he felt prepared to handle the coaching role.
“When you have a good team of great kids who are coachable, it makes your job really easy,” Cantu said.
Although the frontcourt duo of Vucevic and Alex Stepheson never took control, the Trojans (19-14) were competitive to the end. Vucevic had 16 points and 12 rebounds but he never appeared to get in the flow of the offense as wing Marcus Simmons looked for his shot more, scoring a career-high 20 points. Stepheson finished with eight points and eight rebounds. He attempted only seven shots.
They clawed back back from a 12-point deficit with 11:58 left in the game to trail by 3 on a couple of occasions late in the game. Derrick Williams‘ two free throws with 3 seconds remaining sealed it.
“If you’re on the (NCAA tournament selection) committee, and we were on the border,” Cantu said, “you’d have to say, ‘Well, this team played well without their head coach. We feel like they can compete in the NCAA tournament.’”