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Sean Miller: Victory over USC is ‘best win of the season’

Derrick Williams dunks over USC's Nikola Vucevic.
Photo by Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller opened his postgame press conference with this opening statement:

“Well, I told the guys in the locker room after the game I thought this was our best win of the season.”

Sounds about right.

The home victory against Washington was right up there, but the 67-62 win against USC in the Pac-10 semifinals on Friday night is Arizona’s best victory away from home. That’s what the postseason is all about. It’s a nice confidence boost.

Moreover, the Wildcats, at least for one night, solved their problems when playing against a team with two big, strong, manly post players. Miller and his staff, while staying true to their all-the-time, man-to-man defense, devised a new wrinkle.

Four Wildcats played man defense while the guy guarding Marcus Simmons dropped off to double-team big men Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson. Kind of the opposite of a box-and-one zone defense.

“One of the risks that we took — and it worked, although it was risky — was we really tried to use Marcus Simmons’ guy to help on their inside guys,” assistant coach James Whitford said on the 1290-AM postgame radio show.

“They’re so ferocious around the basket. And that’s been a problem for us against bigger teams.”

Simmons, a notoriously poor shooter who was averaging 4.6 points per game, did make Arizona pay. He had a career-high 20 points. But Vucevic had a “quiet” 16 points. Stepheson had eight.

Jamelle Horne reacts after making a 3-pointer late in the game. Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

“We stuck with it the whole game,” Whitford said. “At the end of the day, if you would have told USC that Marcus Simmons would be your leading scorer, they would have said, ‘Hey, that’s a problem for us. That’s not the way we play.’”

Another reason it was such a big game is that Arizona stays on the path to a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament. If the Cats get that, they likely will be “protected” geographically, staying as close to home as possible for the first weekend. Denver? Tulsa?

The victory was achieved in typical Arizona fashion.

Derrick Williams led the way with 20 points and made key plays in the final few minutes. “Great players close out games, and he closed out our win tonight,” Miller said.

And it was a game in which several of the role players had important moments. Six players hit 3-point shots. Jordin Mayes and Jamelle Horne each had eight points off the bench. Solomon Hill didn’t score but he drew two charges, including one with less than two minutes to play.

Horne’s 3-pointer with 2:28 left was huge, giving Arizona a six-point lead.

“We beat an excellent team tonight,” Miller said. “We weren’t favored, and there was a reason.”

It all adds up to Arizona’s best victory.

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