TUCSON, Ariz. -- The Arizona Wildcats picked an excellent time for what coach Sean Miller called "one of our best overall performances."
Rawle Alkins scored 20 points, Deandre Ayton added 18 and No. 13 Arizona rebounded from its first home loss of the season to beat Southern California 81-67 on Saturday night and expand what had been a precarious lead in the Pac-12 standings.
Arizona, beaten Thursday night by UCLA, defeated USC in Tucson for the eighth straight time. Coupled with UCLA's loss at Arizona State earlier Saturday, Arizona extended its Pac-12 lead to two games over the second-place Trojans and Bruins with five more to play.
"I think what makes this sweeter than most is it's not easy to pick yourself off the mat," Miller said. "Losing a home game at McKale isn't a good feeling. However, we are 81-3 the last 84 games (at home). But to come off a Thursday night loss and get ready is not an easy thing. I feel good about how we responded."
Alkins, who missed eight games recovering from foot surgery then three more due to soreness in the same foot, had one of his best outings of the season, comfortably sinking four of seven 3s. He credited a lot of extra shooting between games.
"The way it was coming out of my hand felt kind of weird," he said, "so last night and early before the game, I was getting a lot of shots up, and it's paying off."
USC, swept in its trip to the Arizona schools this week, led only once Saturday night, 20-18 with 9:08 left in the first half.
"This is the first game in the second half that the other team has outplayed us significantly and that's why they beat us," Trojans coach Andy Enfield said. " But the other games we have been right there. Our team is playing good basketball. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to close out the last two games."
Trier scored five, including a 3-pointer, in a 9-0 spurt that put Arizona on top for good 27-20 on Ayton's 15-footer with 7:06 left in the half.
Metu's three-point play cut Arizona's lead to 29-25 with 5:09 left in the half. A pair of 3s by Alkins and Ayton's hook shot stretched the lead to 37-27 before Derryck Thornton made four straight free throws to slice the Wildcats' advantage to 37-31 at the break.
The Wildcats outscored USC 16-9 over the final 6:33. Trier's 3-pointer put Arizona ahead 73-59 with 3:16 to go and Ayton's 3, followed by a rebound basket by Alkins, gave the Wildcats their biggest lead at 80-61.
Miller said the team is at its best when the 7-foot, 260-pound freshman Ayton is playing his best defense.
"He is so gifted and when he's playing like that, with energy," Miller said. "It's not his shot blocking, it's his quick movement away from the basket at his size. I thought he set the tone. But our defense was night and day. Even when they scored, they earned it."
USC: Two weeks ago, the Trojans were flying high with six straight victories. Now they've lost three in a row on the road to UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona and are slipping back toward the pack. Two home games against the Oregon schools next weekend could provide the Trojans a chance to get close again but the trip to the desert was a missed opportunity.
Arizona: The Wildcats would have found themselves tied with USC for first in the conference with a loss, but they were in control pretty much of the way, thanks to a balanced attack that featured a return of Alkins as a serious offensive threat. Next up is a big one at rival Arizona State. A win in Tempe and the Wildcats have the Oregon trip and home games against Stanford and Cal in the way of the conference crowd they were predicted to win.
USC: Hosts Oregon on Thursday night.
Arizona: At Arizona State on Thursday night.
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