LOS ANGELES — After the Arizona Wildcats followed their 14-0 start last season with eight losses, Nick Johnson found himself in a little disagreement with departing teammate Mark Lyons.
“I was telling him, ‘We’re gonna break that streak we had,’ ” Johnson said. “He was like ‘Nah, you won’t do that. You might get 12 or whatever, but you’re going to lose some games.’ ”
Johnson was correct. And some.
With No. 1 Arizona having beaten USC 73-53 on Sunday to move to 17-0, the Wildcats not only surpassed last season’s fast start but every other unbeaten streak in school history.
Arizona’s previous best start was 16-0, set in 1931-32 when games against teams such as Dixie Junior College and UA alums counted in the win column.
Even the Wildcats’ biggest preacher of the one-game-at-a-time approach, coach Sean Miller, paused to take in what that all meant.
“We’re really excited about it,” Miller said. “We talked about it and this is something that all of us will cherish because any school record you break at Arizona in the basketball program is a real record because of the great tradition that we have.”
How the Wildcats ultimately broke the record Sunday was yet another different example of how they can get it done.
Instead of balanced scoring engineered by point guard T.J. McConnell, it was McConnell who took charge offensively when the Trojans threw out mostly a zone defense. McConnell hit 5 of 7 threes, for a season-high 19 points, while forward Brandon Ashley added his own season-high 19 on 7-for-10 shooting.
That helped UA overcome rough evenings for center Kaleb Tarczewski, who took only one field goal attempt, and guard Gabe York, who went 0 for 4 from the field while suffering an ankle injury that kept him out all but three minutes of the second half.
The individual offense of Ashley and McConnell also helped the Wildcats compensate for the fact that they did not out-rebound their opponent for the first time all season: UA and USC each had 30 boards.
While Miller said Ashley was the Wildcats’ best offensive player, what Arizona received from McConnell was exactly what it needed: Hitting open shots when they presented themselves, instead of passing to another teammate, the deep-rooted instinct that McConnell hasn’t always been able to switch off.
“I think he’s focused so much on getting his teammates involved and being that pass-first point guard, a guy that does so many of the other things for his team,” Miller said. “It’s not always easy to then make a three and we’ve talked to him over the last couple of weeks, (and told him), ‘Just pick the one that presents itself.’ ”
With USC flashing a 2-3 zone for much of the night that flustered UA into a four-point deficit late in the first half, McConnell actually saw plenty of those shots presenting themselves.
So he took them, even though he said he’s been struggling from three-point range, having gone 0 for 6 from beyond the arc in his first three Pac-12 games.
“They went to a zone and I knew I was going to get open,” McConnell said. “They were just falling tonight and it’s about time because I haven’t been hitting them for a while.”
McConnell hit his first three just over seven minutes into the game, giving UA a 14-10 lead, added a second one to tie the game at 23 after USC had taken its first lead and hit a third just after USC had opened its biggest lead, 27-23.
McConnell’s third three cut it to 27-26 with 4:43 left in the first half and, after York hit a pair of free throws a minute later to give UA a 28-27 lead, the Wildcats never trailed again.
They led 34-31 at halftime and gradually expanded their lead to as high as 22 points in the second half.
While McConnell credited his teammates for getting him the ball at the right times, that was pretty much the opposite of what usually happens.
He usually feeds them and, Miller said, that can’t always be the case if he wants to be a truly effective point guard.
“One of the points we made to him is that, in his quest to be the pass-first every time point guard, is that if he passes up opportunities that present themselves for him, he actually starts taking away from his teammates because they don’t have to guard him,” Miller said. “But he was aggressive tonight. I thought every shot he took was a good one.”
He was yet another reason why Johnson made that challenge with Lyons last spring. Johnson knew McConnell would be eligible, a true point guard who is gluing the Wildcats together, while Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have been effective freshmen around a strong returning core.
That’s why, really, Johnson said he isn’t surprised by the 17-0 mark.
Not at all.
“I knew we had a good group coming back,” Johnson said. “I knew my role was going to be increased. So I was confident. I was pretty accurate.”