All season long, Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller has praised the focus of his veterans and freshmen alike, their ability to block outside pressures and chatter in the name of long-term team goals.

But until the No. 6 Wildcats beat USC 74-50 on Saturday, holding the Trojans to just 28.1 percent shooting, Miller had never seen that resolve tested quite like it was this week.

The Wildcats had tossed away, literally, a chance to beat well-regarded UCLA on Thursday before a "white out" home crowd and prime-time national television audience, after missing 12 of their first 13 field goals and never fully recovering.

Unbeaten until Jan. 10, the Wildcats were suddenly two games out of first place in the Pac-12, with a talented and unpredictable USC team coming to town with an interim head coach and nothing to lose.

So Miller wondered, and worried. A bit, at least.

"When it doesn't go your way, sometimes it can lead into the next game or the next day," Miller said, "especially in today's world when you have so many outside forces pulling a team apart. Especially once you lose, it's like, 'Now they lost - watch this.' "

Inside and outside, the Wildcats felt the heat. It started with the team's own disappointment in the locker room after the game, Miller said, while forward Grant Jerrett said later that it became "weird" to walk around on campus with a loss.

Even after Saturday's game, center Kaleb Tarczewski, almost defensively, noted that, "Hey, we're 17-2."

He's right. Arizona is 17-2 overall and 5-2 in Pac-12 play, actually receiving a little outside help at the same time in the conference race. ASU beat UCLA, meaning the Wildcats moved from third into a second-place tie in the loss column with the Bruins and Sun Devils.

And while first-place Oregon beat Washington on Saturday, well-regarded Ducks point guard Dominic Artis has been lost indefinitely to a foot injury.

"It can change quickly," Miller said.

The Wildcats did their part to help the change by focusing on the one thing Miller preaches as much as anything: defense.

USC hit 15 of 28 three-pointers in an overtime loss at ASU on Thursday, but it became quickly obvious that wasn't going to happen Saturday at McKale Center. The Cats locked up the Trojans early, keeping them to a 2-for-19 shooting start and took a 39-20 lead into halftime.

"We knew after the UCLA game that we wanted to attack, and I think we did that," said Tarczewski, who had 10 points and seven rebounds. "We had a rough start two nights ago, but our momentum tonight helped us through the whole game."

USC coach Bob Cantu said the Wildcats had an "exceptional" defense that denied the Trojans on the high post and would not let them into their offense. As a result, he said, they were never able to get back in it.

Sound familiar? On Thursday night, the Wildcats had the same issue against UCLA, cutting the Bruins' lead to four points in the second half but never really, Miller said, having a sense that they could pull out a win.

So after halftime Saturday, USC started misfiring again.

USC was 3 for 20 to start the second half, allowing UA to take a 63-32 lead with eight minutes left, after which Miller played lightly used reserves Angelo Chol and Gabe York, as well as his four walk-ons.

York was the Wildcats' only active scholarship athlete who had not played in a Pac-12 game yet, and had not even played at all since Dec. 23, when the Wildcats beat Miami 69-50 in the Diamond Head Classic. But York responded by hitting two three-pointers and finishing with a season-high seven points.

"The way you break through in his situation is come into a game like tonight, and make it look easy," Miller said, "because he can really score."

Miller also played Chol for eight minutes after sitting him out during the Wildcats' past two games against ASU and UCLA.

Nick Johnson led the Wildcats in scoring with 14 points, while Solomon Hill had 13 points, five rebounds and four assists.

In all, four players scored in double figures for Arizona, 10 players logged eight or more minutes and all 14 active players were in the game.

And, after those two worrisome days, all the Wildcats left McKale feeling good this time.

"None of us are naïve enough to think people didn't leave disappointed" on Thursday, Miller said. "People love the Wildcats.

"But we're the guys working daily and we know the things that mean the most toward our success, and it's not as easy to keep a group focused on those things when it doesn't go well. It was a test for us, and I think it was a good test in handling that."

Up next

• What: No. 6 Arizona at Washington

• When: 7 p.m. Thursday

• TV; radio: ESPN; 1290-AM, 107.5-FM