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No. 11 Arizona, USC battle to begin key league stretches

Dec 4, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Arizona Wildcats guard Kerr Kriisa (25), guard Courtney Ramey (0),  center Oumar Ballo (11) and guard Cedric Henderson Jr. (45) huddle during the second half against the Cal Golden Bears at McKale Center. Mandatory Credit: Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports

The pressure is on Arizona’s guards as the No. 11 Wildcats prepare to host Southern California on Thursday in Tucson, Ariz., to start a big week of conference play for both teams.

Arizona (15-3, 4-3 Pac-12) already finds itself three games behind league-leading UCLA, which will visit the Wildcats on Saturday after playing at second-place Arizona State on Thursday. USC (13-5, 5-2) sits in third place, coming off a home sweep of Colorado and Utah.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, were manhandled Saturday at Oregon, which won 87-68, outrebounded Arizona by 10, and held starting guards Kerr Kriisa, Courtney Ramey and Pelle Larsson to 7-of-24 shooting. That shooting stat continued a theme for the Wildcats in the five games since conference play resumed Dec. 31.

Kriisa is 14 of 50 from the field in that span. Ramey is 12 of 43. Larsson is 10 of 28.

Head coach Tommy Lloyd doesn’t have many bench options, although 17-year-old point guard Kylan Boswell could be playing himself into more minutes. He took advantage of extended court time against Oregon due to Kriisa’s foul trouble and scored a team-high 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting in 24 minutes.

“Kylan is getting better,” Lloyd said. “He’s really growing. We just need our guards playing better downhill, and better passing. I think he can provide some of that for us as he gets some more experience.”

Arizona needs betting shooting from its guards to take defensive pressure off big men Azuolas Tubelis (20.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg) and Oumar Ballo (16.3, 9.1).

USC is beginning a critical stretch that includes the road trip to the Arizona schools, followed by a Jan. 26 showdown against UCLA.

The Trojans’ 71-56 victory against Utah on Saturday was one of their most complete efforts of the season. They had a plus-12 rebounding margin, committed only 10 turnovers, shot 47.5 percent and allowed the Utes to connect on just 34.4 percent from the field.

“We’ve really improved offensively, especially in the last couple of weeks,” said USC coach Andy Enfield. “We’re right there. There are certain things that we need to improve on, but I am very proud of our effort, and how unselfish they’ve been on offense.”

The Trojans have not been scary from 3-point range, shooting only 31.9 percent from behind the arc, but they are led by playmaking guard Boogie Ellis, who is averaging 15.7 points. He has nine assists and one turnover in the past two games. Drew Peterson is second on the team in scoring at 13.6 points per game.

Vince Iwuchukwu, a 7-foot-1 five-star freshman, could be valuable Saturday against Arizona’s talented post players. Iwuchukwu made his USC debut last week after suffering an episode of cardiac arrest over the summer. He played five minutes against Colorado and six against Utah. He might be able to play slightly more minutes in this important stretch of the season.

Arizona has won three consecutive games against the Trojans. The Wildcats will look to start a new home winning streak after Washington State snapped their 28-game run with a 74-61 decision on Jan. 7.

–Field Level Media