By Dennis J. Freeman
Los Angeles-USC men’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill was suspended just prior to his team’s Pacific Life Pac-10 Conference Tournament semifinal matchup against the Arizona Wildcats at Staples Center. That distraction didn’t seem to faze the upset-minded Trojans.
Knowing that a potential NCAA Tournament berth was at stake, USC battled and played Arizona all the way up to the final buzzer, losing 67-62. Despite the fact that their head coach was missing from the sidelines, USC (19-14) came out and played with the type of energy and defensive toughness that would have made O’Neill proud.
“It’s unfortunate he wasn’t able to coach this game, but I’m really proud of the efforts our guys gave,” said USC assistant coach Bob Cantu. “I thought we really fought, and we played really, really hard and really defended. I think that anybody out there that was watching this game tonight can see we can compete with just about any team in the country.”
Throughout the season, USC have shown the moxie to compete with the big boys, racking up wins against the likes of Texas, Tennessee, UCLA and Washington. They were looking for one more victory to get an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament. The loss of O’Neill could have played a part in USC not winning the game. But you couldn’t tell.
USC played Arizona (27-6) as if they had something to prove all night. Even with Arizona taking a 12-point lead in the second half and threatened to make the game a runaway, USC fought and clawed their way back into the game behind the hot shooting of Marcus Simmons (20 points) and the play of forward Nikola Vucevic (16 points and 12 rebounds).
For the first 20 minutes of the game, USC went toe-to-toe with Arizona, getting up and personal with the Wildcats with some tough defense and opportunistic offensive game plan. The blueprint was somewhat different in the second half as Arizona used its height and great athletic ability to eventually pull away from the scrappy Trojans.
USC had gotten as close as three points of Arizona with a couple of minutes left in the game, but a deep three-point shot by Jamelle Horne and couple of late baskets by Derrick Williams (20 points, six rebounds) sealed the game for the Wildcats.
(It) doesn’t matter about the points or rebounds or assists,” said Williams. “As long as we get the win, I’m happy.”
USC fans couldn’t be happy by what could have been. If O’Neill was on the sidelines, USC might have pulled off the upset and advanced to the tournament championship. But that is neither here or there. USC Athletic Director Pat Haden wasn’t a happy camper after learning that O’Neill and his wife, Roberta, had allegedly gotten into an ugly altercation with an Arizona supporter shortly after the team’s quarterfinal win over Cal.
Whatever happened, it was enough for Haden to sit O’Neill down for the rest of the conference tournament.
“I have talked to Coach Kevin O’Neill and expressed my disappointment in his involvement in an incident last night in which he and his wife engaged in an argument with a supporter of another school,” Haden said. “We have met with various parties who have knowledge of the incident. Based on the information we have gathered, I am immediately suspending Coach O’Neill for the balance of the Pac-10 Conference Tournament. We also have set forth additional discipline that will remain private.
“Coach O’Neill was remorseful and apologetic and accepted responsibility for his actions. He understood that his actions were unacceptable and that they reflect poorly on him, his team and USC. We hold our coaches to very high standards, as they are role models to the student-athletes they lead. Clearly, Coach O’Neill used poor judgment and failed in this situation. Coach O’Neill is a good man and an outstanding basketball coach. He made a bad decision in this instance and is now suffering the consequences.”
O’Neill, in an apology, was remorseful about his actions.
“I want to apologize to my team, our university and our fans for my involvement last night in an incident with a fan,” said O’Neill. “I understand my behavior as the leader of our team was unacceptable. I used poor judgment and put myself, my team and USC in a bad light. I regret that I have let them down.”