feb 18, 2017 | Bill plaschke | THE L.A. TIMES | ARTICLE LINK
Everyone knows the UCLA basketball team can score, and dish, and run through the gym as if they are flying.
But at a rollicking Pauley Pavilion that included all those things Saturday night, the Bruins proved capable of equally important attributes.
They can learn. They can grow. And yes, they can finally beat USC.
Barely two weeks after suffering their most discouraging loss of the season to the Trojans, the sixth-ranked Bruins outsmarted, outworked and outplayed them in a 102-70 victory that was even bigger than it looked.
“Incredible, really,” the Bruins’ Thomas Welsh said.
It was as big as Coach Steve Alford’s joyous stomps across the floor with every big Bruins defensive stop. It was as big as Bryce Alford’s eyes on jump shots he threw in from Wilshire Boulevard. It was as big as the steals and stutter-steps and alley-oop slams that fueled the Bruins’ second-half rout amid wild cheers filled with wonder.
“I’m having fun,” Steve Alford said. “I mean, this is a fun team.”
“It just snowballed,” Trojans Coach Andy Enfield said.
If the Bruins played like they needed this game more, well, they felt like they did.
If UCLA had lost, it would have been its fifth straight defeat to USC, the longest such streak in 74 years. It would also have come after a late January loss to the Trojans that was followed by a players-only meeting in the UCLA locker room in which the Bruins vowed to start playing defense.
Was that defeat a teaching moment? Did that meeting work? It turns out, yes and yes. The Bruins have now gone 5-0 since that loss at Galen Center, including a 19-point comeback in a victory over highly ranked Oregon and a win Saturday night that was wrapped in desperate relief.
You could see it written all over Bryce Alford’s face when he made two plays to clinch it. With 6:54 left, he hit a long three-pointer to give the Bruins a 15-point lead. Moments later, he was hammered on a layup yet somehow banked the ball in while falling to the floor.
When he stood up, he was snarling. That’s right, nice Bryce Alford was twisting his face into a Kobe Bryant jaw while slapping hands with courtside fans.
“I like it when he snarls, I wish he would snarl in warmups,” said Steve Alford, who then talked about seeing that look when watching films of his son after games. “Tanya and I do that late at night, we talk about that all the time, ‘He’s got that look, he’s got that look.’ When he gets that, he goes to another level toughness-wise. He got to that tonight and we needed that.”
One didn’t need to see the scoreboard — which read 79-61 after Bryce’s free throw — to know the game was over. One didn’t need to look at box scores to figure that Alford, who made one basket in the previous loss to USC, finished this game with redemption, eight baskets and 26 points.
“A Kobe Bryant face? I’ll take it,” Bryce said. “I’m so passionate, when I get it going for my team ... that’s just what happens to my face. I don’t know if one day it will get stuck like that.”
But, hey, if you did want to look at the box score, in the first meeting last month, USC ran past the Bruins with four guards and swarmed them into 17 turnovers in an eight-point victory.
This time, the Bruins ran smack over the Trojans, making more than half of their shots while holding USC to 34% shooting and outrebounding the Trojans by 17. Those turnovers dropped to 10, which, along with 23 assists and five players in double-figure scoring, is the definition of “team win.”
“The last five games, we’re scoring the ball again like early in the season,” Steve Alford said. “The difference is, we’re defending.”
UCLA is now 24-3 and still leading the nation in points and assists per game. For the Trojans, it was a missed opportunity to further prove themselves nationally. Entering the night, they were off to their best start in 25 years, at 21-5, yet still unranked and uncertain of a decent tournament seeding.
And it wasn’t like they never had a chance. With 7:57 left in the first half, the Trojans led, 23-18. Then Isaac Hamilton hit a jumper to start UCLA on a 28-9 run to end the half with the Bruins leading, 46-34, setting the tone for the rest of the game.
The comeback was fueled with defense, Welsh blocking Chimezie Metu, Gyorgy Goloman forcing Elijah Stewart out of bounds, hands in face, help coming from everywhere.
And, of course, the comeback was also fueled with shooting, Bryce Alford hitting two three-pointers, TJ Leaf active everywhere around the basket and, finally, Lonzo Ball with his usual dramatics.
In the final seconds of the half, just past the midcourt line, Ball dribbled and dribbled and then sank one of his from-the-hip threes to end the half with UCLA leading by a dozen.
Of course he did. It’s what he does. And for once, beating USC was something UCLA actually did, a night of growth, from the chill of late January into the oncoming heat of March.