|UCLA guard Aaron Holiday scrambles to control the ball as USC's De'Anthony Melton, left, Nick Rakocevic and Jordan McGlaughlin, right, try to take it from him during second half action at the Galen Center. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)|
jan 25, 2017 | THE L.A. TIMES | ARTICLE LINK
He knelt along the sideline, his back against a videoboard advertising a resort destination. UCLA Coach Steve Alford looked at the floor slats, put his hand on his temple and massaged.
It had taken 38 minutes against rival USC, but his Bruins had finally found their speed. Trailing and needing quick scores, point guard Lonzo Ball pushed the pace. He whipped a pass to Aaron Holiday in the paint. Holiday pushed forward, then whirled the ball behind his back — right to USC’s Jordan McLaughlin. Every UCLA step Wednesday evening, USC matched. Every play, the Trojans were there. Alford shook his head.
Soon, he was shaking USC Coach Andy Enfield’s hand at the Galen Center after a loss for the fourth straight time. USC won, 84-76, extending its longest streak over its rival since a span from 2009 to 2011.
USC guard Shaqquan Aaron strode into a postgame news conference cradling a basketball. Asked if it was the game ball, he said no.
“I was going to go shoot after,” he said.
He did not appear to need the extra practice. Off the bench, he tormented No. 8 UCLA, scoring 23 points and powering USC to a first-half lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
A season ago, USC had done the same, trampling UCLA three times with superior athleticism. Its defense smothered. Its offense zoomed past the Bruins in transition. An encore was not widely expected.
UCLA had appeared to shift the paradigm. Behind point guard Ball, UCLA owned the best offense in the nation. After Wednesday’s game, Enfield called it “as talented an offensive team as I’ve ever seen in college basketball.”
However, UCLA ended the game with its second-worst offensive performance of the season.
USC (18-4, 5-4 in the Pac-12 Conference) was playing without arguably its best player, forward Bennie Boatwright. That obliged the Trojans to use four guards for much of the game.
But they could still run. And so they did.
UCLA’s fearsome transition game never found space. It took the Bruins more than 15 minutes to generate their first fastbreak. They scored only six fastbreak points all game.
Among the Lilliputian defense, UCLA’s big men, Thomas Welsh and TJ Leaf, found clearer airspace inside, and Welsh exploited it early with 10 points in the game’s first six minutes. But a zone hounded UCLA’s perimeter and prevented easy entry passes. Welsh finished with just 13. Leaf scored eight.
UCLA (19-3, 6-3) committed 17 turnovers. Ball alone had seven. UCLA scored the game’s first eight points, but USC punched back with three-pointers.
Aaron led all scorers. “Just spectacular tonight,” Enfield said. “This was his best game.”
UCLA had torched teams from behind the arc, but USC dominated Wednesday, with 14 three-pointers to UCLA’s six. UCLA shooting guard Bryce Alford, averaging 17.2 points going in, was limited to three points.
Enfield said he knew USC, short-handed in the frontcourt, would have to win on the perimeter to hang with UCLA.
“When your power forward’s 6-foot-3, you better spread the floor and shoot the ball,” Enfield said, laughing.
Early in the second half, UCLA had to demur to USC’s speed, and Alford leaned heavily on his own four-guard set. The USC student section began chanting “over-rated.” Meanwhile, Chimezie Metu slammed a one-handed alley-oop. Soon after, Metu blocked a jump shot from Welsh, the 7-footer. It is the second season in a row the sophomore, who wanted to attend UCLA, terrorized the Bruins with his length. Metu scored 13 points with seven rebounds.
Meetings when both teams are serious contenders is rare. This season each breezed through the nonconference schedule unblemished. The last time each had started so well was the 1970-71 season, when Bob Boyd's USC team briefly challenged John Wooden’s UCLA for supremacy; UCLA prevailed. USC retired Boyd’s number posthumously during a halftime ceremony Wednesday.
Such matchups don’t happen often. The teams have made the NCAA tournament in the same year only 11 times.
Sensing the opportunity, the city turned out. The game sold out a month in advance. One student wearing a Speedo found seats directly behind the basket. USC football Coach Clay Helton and former quarterback Matt Leinart attended.
The atmosphere, Enfield said “was the best I’ve ever seen since we’ve been here as a staff.”
Wednesday at Washington, 8 p.m., Alaska Airlines Arena, ESPNU — Washington has one of the nation’s best players in Markelle Fultz, who averages 23.4 points per game. He could use some help, however.
Wednesday at Washington State, 6 p.m., Beasley Coliseum, Pac-12 Networks — The Bruins have lost three consecutive games on the road against the Cougars after having gone undefeated there from 1994 to 2012.
— Ben Bolch