USC forward Nikola Vucevic challenges a driving layup by Arizona forward… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
Bob Cantu last coached a basketball game in 1998.
He was an assistant then for Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, coaching against Santa Monica College because his head coach had been suspended.
Three hours before tipoff Friday afternoon, the USC associate head coach learned he'd be coaching once again in place of a suspended head coach, this time Kevin O'Neill.
Was Cantu nervous before leading fourth-seeded USC against top-seeded Arizona in a Pacific Life Pac-10 tournament semifinal?
"Wouldn't you be?" he said before the game at Staples Center. "It's only the biggest game of the year."
With USC's slim NCAA tournament hopes at stake, and its head coach watching the game from his downtown Los Angeles penthouse a few blocks away, the Trojans fell, 67-62.
Arizona (27-6) advanced to Saturday's Pac-10 final against the winner of Friday's other semifinal game between seventh-seeded Oregon and third-seeded Washington.
The Wildcats swept Oregon and split two games with Washington this season.
O'Neill, 54, had been suspended for the entirety of USC's stay in the Pac-10 tournament for an altercation he and his wife were involved in Thursday night in a hotel lobby with an Arizona booster, Paul Weitman. O'Neill, a former Arizona head coach and assistant now in his second year at USC, has known Weitman for two decades.
USC Athletic Director Pat Haden said in a release that that USC has "set forth additional discipline that will remain private."
When reached by phone, O'Neill said of further discipline, "We just talked about the Pac-10 tournament." When asked if he was concerned he might lose his job, O'Neill said, "That was never discussed."
O'Neill is set to meet with Haden and USC senior associate athletic directors Steve Lopes and J.K. McKay when Haden, who is currently on the road, returns to L.A.
"At the end of the day, he's a coach but he's a human," junior guard Jio Fontan said. "He makes mistakes and whatever the case is, I don't know too much about it, but we all support him."
Regardless of the outcome of that meeting, it's unlikely anyone will be coaching USC (19-14) in the NCAA tournament. The Trojans needed at least a win against Arizona to warrant serious at-large bid consideration.
The Trojans appear destined for the NIT, though with five wins against top-50 teams in the Ratings Percentage Index, including victories over Arizona, Texas and Tennessee, they'd argue otherwise.
"If you're on the committee and we were on the border, you'd have to say, well, this team played well without their head coach," Cantu said.
USC junior forward Nikola Vucevic scored 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for his Pac-10 leading 21st double-double, but said it felt odd without O'Neill.
"When KO's there, he yells a lot," Vucevic said, "and we didn't hear a lot of yelling today."
The crowd had a few signs chiding O'Neill. One read, "O'Neill leave our fans alone." Another read, "Hotel bar" with a black arrow pointing in one direction.
And those fans roared as the game came down to the final minutes.
Fontan made a three-point jumper with 48 seconds to pull USC to within three, but Arizona sophomore forward Derrick Williams, the Pac-10 player of the year, converted four free throws late to seal Arizona's win.
Williams, a former USC signee, scored 20 points.
USC senior guard Marcus Simmons also scored 20, a career-high.
After the game, the USC players praised Cantu's ability to step into that situation, and he praised them, saying "They could've laid down, but they didn't."
And as for O'Neill, Fontan said, "I love KO to death, but I don't think him being here would've changed anything."