|After making a basket and getting fouled, UCLA's Bryce Alford high-fives front row fans in Westwood, CA on Saturday, February 18, 2017. UCLA men's basketball beat USC 102-70 at Pauley Pavilion. (Photo by Scott Varley, Daily Breeze/SCNG)|
feb 18 2017 | jeff miller | L.A. Daily news | ARTICLE LINK
LOS ANGELES >> It was chaotic. It was intense. It was fabulous.
About the only thing it wasn’t was March. But that’s just because the calendar annually insists on finishing February first.
UCLA beat USC 102-70 at pulsating and vibrant Pauley Pavilion on Saturday in a game that sounded, felt and looked like it could have come straight from the NCAA Tournament.
Where, conveniently enough, both these teams appear to be heading, only as certainly as sneakers squeak.
There’s the matter of finishing the Pac-12 Conference schedule first and then the league tournament.
But the Bruins and Trojans are readying for something bigger than an invitational in Las Vegas, bigger even than the rivalry these schools have cultivated over the past several decades of dislike and derision.
Not that the thorny coziness of this matchup can be dismissed that easily, of course.
UCLA’s victory was enormous in that it stopped a four-game losing streak to USC, four games that, given the opposition, must have felt like losing 40 in a row to someone like Arizona State.
The Bruins hadn’t dropped five straight in this series since a streak that ended in the early 1940s. Yeah, this win was that enormous.
On Saturday, there were four ties and four lead changes early on until the Bruins used a 17-3 run to force a fifth — and final — lead change late in the first half.
Then, when Bryce Alford dropped his third 3-pointer on the Trojans like an anvil at the 2:11 mark, UCLA had its first double-digit lead (41-30) and USC’s Andy Enfield his first reason to call timeout.
Unfortunately for the Trojans’ coach, a timeout only delayed the avalanche that was just starting to rumble.
This was the Bruins reasserting themselves in a rivalry that had turned oddly one-sided and doing so in an environment that, like the team playing at the center of it, continues to impress.
UCLA broke open the game for dramatic emphasis in the final 10 minutes as Bryce Alford (26 points) flirted with offensive unconsciousness and TJ Leaf (19 points, eight rebounds) did just about everything right.
Before it was over, Alford would be hitting a 3-pointer and holding his pose for added effect, Lonzo Ball would be accepting an ally-oop pass and dunking unlike any point guard should and Thomas Welsh would be grabbing 16 rebounds.
In these teams’ first meeting this season, in January at Galen Center, Shaqquan Aaron came off the Trojans bench to make four 3-pointers.
This time, one of his attempts from beyond the arc in the first half not only didn’t go in, it ended up stuck between the rim and the backboard.
That ball, wedged helplessly overhead, was a fitting snapshot of USC’s night. Once they fell behind, the Trojans kept fighting back, but they simply couldn’t unstick themselves.
Luckily for USC, NCAA Tournament bids generally disregard one-score gaps, no matter how serious.
But this is what can happen when Ball and the Bruins take flight, UCLA winning the second half, 56-36, and, frankly, it didn’t feel that close.
In the NCAA Tournament committee’s preliminary bracket released Feb. 11, the Bruins were a No. 4 seed. That’s also where they were placed in ESPN’s most recent projections.
USC was seeded eighth, according to ESPN, which spends plenty of man hours and plenty of men researching and forecasting this stuff.
In other words, ESPN is typically awfully accurate when it comes to college basketball, if you can survive the gales of hot air its army of analysts spew on a nightly basis.
Naturally, a lot will still transpire between now and March 12, when the NCAA Tournament field is announced. The Bruins and Trojans advancing together, however, is something overdue to happen.
Not since 2011 have both played in the tournament during the same season, the only thing maddening about that March being how quickly the whole thing then unraveled.
UCLA beat Michigan State but then lost to a Florida team that would reach the Elite Eight.
USC wasn’t nearly as fortunate, the Trojans falling in the First Four to Virginia Commonwealth, Dayton being an otherwise fine Ohio city but one in which you never want your college basketball season to end.
USC did appear in the tournament last spring, too, but the school hasn’t won a game in the NCAAs since 2009, the season the roster included DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson and Nikola Vucevic.
If that doesn’t sound like a long time ago realize that, three months after the Trojans defeated Boston College in the opening round, the Lakers won the NBA championship in Orlando.
UCLA famously advanced to the Sweet 16 in Alford’s first two years here before last season dissolved — also quite famously — into a mess that had critics calling for a coaching change.
So this could be a special season we’re witnessing, one in which both the Bruins and Trojans dance into March and then dance some more.
If Saturday was any indication, one of these teams, in particular, could be dancing for a while.