- Associated Press - Saturday, March 12, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Southern California coach Kevin O’Neill was suspended for the rest of the Pac-10 tournament Friday after getting into a verbal confrontation with an Arizona booster.

The school announced the suspension about two hours before the Trojans played the Wildcats and lost 67-62 in the semifinals at Staples Center with associate coach Bob Cantu taking over.

“It was shocking, I didn’t expect to hear that. It kind of caught everybody off-guard,” senior Alex Stepheson said. “We would have liked to get this one in honor of him. But it didn’t work out.”

USC athletic director Pat Haden said in a statement that O’Neill would receive additional discipline that would remain private.

Cantu said he talked to O’Neill briefly on Thursday night after receiving text messages about the incident while he was still at Staples scouting games.

“This morning we met with the team and kind of told them what was going on. But no one really knew what was going to exactly happen,” said Cantu, who found out at 3 p.m. that he would be in charge for the first time in a Division I game.

“The guys responded. I could see in their eyes they really wanted to compete and I’m just proud of their efforts.”

O’Neill apologized through multiple media outlets earlier Friday for what he said was a confrontation involving himself, his wife and the Arizona booster on Thursday night at the team’s hotel after the Trojans’ quarterfinal victory against California.

The coach and his wife, Roberta, stopped at the JW Marriott to pick up some items before returning to their home. As they came off the elevator, O’Neill encountered an Arizona booster with whom he said he doesn’t get along.

O’Neill said he and the booster got into a verbal confrontation in the lobby and that his wife also became involved. He said there was no physical contact and that the argument ended when a security guard approached.

“I want to apologize to my team, our university and our fans for my involvement last night in an incident with a fan,” he said in a statement through the school.

“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.”

Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said he agreed with Haden’s decision.

“We commend USC for its actions,” he said.

Through 14 seasons as a college coach, O’Neill has developed a reputation for being fiery both on and off the court.

He’s in his second season with the Trojans, who were back in the league tourney after sitting out last season as part of self-imposed sanctions for NCAA violations involving former star O.J. Mayo.

O’Neill was hired by coach Lute Olson as an assistant at Arizona before the 2007-08 season, and became interim coach when Olson took a medical leave of absence.

O’Neill led the Wildcats to a 19-15 record and the school’s 24th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, at the time the nation’s longest active streak.

He was designated Olson’s permanent successor, but when the Hall of Famer returned that spring he announced O’Neill would no longer be part of the program.

“There were some trying times there,” O’Neill said in June 2009 upon being hired at USC. “A lot of people said a lot of things after I left. I didn’t say anything. I don’t have any ill will or any bad feelings whatsoever, plus I ended up in a better job.”

Haden said he spoke with 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.”

“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,” Haden said.

O’Neill said he respects and accepts the discipline imposed by USC.

“I look forward to learning from this, moving forward and coaching the Trojans well into the future,” he said.

Before the suspension was announced, Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said he knew the Pac-10 and USC were looking into the incident and he had full confidence it would be handled in the proper way.

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