When asked during the Wildcats’ rough start to 2023 whether he might change his lineup, Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd consistently said he wasn’t thinking of “anything crazy.”

At least on Thursday against USC, just one move proved good enough.

Lloyd started forward Cedric Henderson while returning Pelle Larsson to the sixth-man role he thrived in last season, and the move paid off immediately for the Wildcats in an 81-66 win over the Trojans at McKale Center.

Having averaged just 2.8 points over Arizona’s previous four games, Henderson contributed 11 points and seven rebounds this time. Larsson, the Pac-12’s Sixth Man of the Year last season, had 15 points, three rebounds and three assists.

“I just thought it was the right thing for the team,” Lloyd said afterward, crediting Larsson for accepting the change. “This wasn’t a reprimand or demotion. I just felt our bench needed something a little more consistent, and he gives us some versatility. You can play him at the three or the four, and, to be quite honest, our young big guys need a little more time.

“And the flip side was to get Cedric going again. Cedric’s been great. He hasn’t complained one time. He’s had some really good games, and he’s had some games where he probably wishes he was a little better. So if this helps out both the guys and ultimately helps the team, I felt like it was the right decision.”

The stats suggested it was the right decision for the Wildcats, who returned to their more efficient offensive ways while holding the Trojans to just 36.9% shooting on the other end of the court.

Arizona shot 48.3% from the field and hit 12 of 24 3-pointers while also receiving the usual heavy inside production from Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo. Meanwhile, guard Courtney Ramey took the next step out of his New Year’s shooting slump.

Ramey hit 5 of 10 3-pointers, tying his season high for made 3s, while collecting 15 points, two steals and two assists. Tubelis accented his customary double-double by piling up a career-high 17 rebounds on to his 15 points.

Arizona vs USC-p21.jpg

Arizona center Oumar Ballo, left, and forward Azuolas Tubelis clamp down on USC guard Reese Dixon-Waters, stopping him in the second half of their Pac 12 game at McKale Center, Tucson, Ariz., January 19, 2023.

The 17 rebounds were the most a UA player has pulled down since Zeke Nnaji had 17 against Gonzaga in 2019-20.

“‘Zu’ is a great basketball player, and he’s really smart,” Ballo said. “For him to get those rebounds means a lot for the team and me personally because coaches have been on us (to get) rebounds, and Zu is doing that. He just took a huge step forward.”

Ballo — who said he’s improving but still not 100% after being hospitalized with an illness during the first week of January — chipped in 12 points and seven rebounds.

But Tubelis and Ballo have been reliably productive for the Wildcats all season. That hasn’t been the case lately with just about anyone else, and Henderson was an extreme … until Thursday.

In the lineup for the first time since starting the Wildcats’ first three games of the season, when Ramey was under an NCAA suspension, Henderson grabbed five first-half rebounds. That went on while the Wildcats ignored the fact that they had shot under 40% in three of their past four games, hitting 51.9% from the field before halftime.

Then, when things dipped for the Wildcats early in the second half, Henderson ignited them.

UA held a 41-26 lead, but the Trojans cut it to just nine points over the first two minutes of the second half while the Wildcats’ offense began to sputter. In that period, Ramey missed three 3-pointers while Ballo missed two layups and Tubelis missed another inside.

Then Henderson hit back-to-back 3-pointers, the second from the left corner on a feed from freshman Kylan Boswell, and the Wildcats never really regressed again. They led 47-32 after Henderson’s second 3-pointer and by at least 14 points the rest of the way.

Arizona vs USC-p11.jpg

Arizona guard Kerr Kriisa exults from the bench after USC missed two free throws earned on one of his fouls in the second half of their Pac 12 game at McKale Center, Tucson, Ariz., January 19, 2023.

“I just think he made plays early in the game that helped the whole team,” Ramey said of Henderson. “I think he did a good job of rebounding and got himself going. Then he made some big buckets in the second half with those back-to-back 3s. Our offense was kind of still. But he got us going. It was good to see him get going.”

In the end, Lloyd’s move might have worked out better than he could have expected.

Except he didn’t want to go quite that far. Especially with UCLA coming to McKale in about 36 hours.

“It worked out like I hoped,” he said. “Overall, our team got off to a good start and played really well. So yeah, I mean, it worked for one game. We’ll see what Saturday looks like.”

No. 11 Arizona 81, USC 66

USC (13-6)

Morgan 2-3 3-8 7, Ellis 2-11 5-6 10, Johnson 2-5 1-2 6, Peterson 5-14 4-4 15, White 3-9 0-0 7, Dixon-Waters 4-10 0-0 8, Iwuchukwu 2-7 0-0 4, Thomas 2-4 0-0 4, Hornery 0-0 0-0 0, Wright 1-1 0-0 2, Niagu 0-0 0-0 0, Sellers 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 24-65 14-21 66.

ARIZONA (16-3)

A.Tubelis 6-12 3-5 15, Ballo 5-10 2-4 12, Kriisa 2-7 1-2 6, Ramey 5-10 1-2 16, Henderson 4-6 1-3 11, Larsson 4-7 5-5 15, Boswell 1-4 0-0 3, Bal 0-0 0-0 0, Veesaar 0-0 0-0 0, Ackerley 0-0 0-0 0, Lang 1-1 0-0 3, Mains 0-0 0-0 0, T.Tubelis 0-0 0-0 0, Weitman 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-57 13-21 81.

Halftime: Arizona 41-26. 3-Point Goals: USC 4-18 (Johnson 1-1, Ellis 1-4, White 1-4, Peterson 1-5, Iwuchukwu 0-1, Dixon-Waters 0-3), Arizona 12-24 (Ramey 5-9, Henderson 2-2, Larsson 2-3, Lang 1-1, Boswell 1-2, Kriisa 1-6, A.Tubelis 0-1). Fouled Out: Peterson. Rebounds: USC 30 (Peterson, White 6), Arizona 39 (A.Tubelis 15). Assists: USC 7 (Ellis, Peterson 2), Arizona 17 (Kriisa 7). Total Fouls: USC 23, Arizona 19.

No. 11 Arizona cruised by USC 81-66 on Thursday at McKale Center.

Contact sports reporter Bruce Pascoe at bpascoe@tucson.com. On Twitter: @brucepascoe

Originally published on tucson.com, part of the BLOX Digital Content Exchange.


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