UCLA played what has to be considered one of it's best games of the last two seasons and defeated crosstown rival USC, 64-50, Wednesday in a Pac-10 game at Pauley Pavilion.
The Bruins (15-7, 7-3) led, 36-35, at halftime, but held USC (12-11, 4-6) to 15 points in the second half and out-rebounded the Trojans, 24-11, after intermission. The victory ended a four-game losing streak against USC and it moved UCLA to within a half game of first-place Washington and Arizona in the conference race.
"We knew they had a little run and a winning streak on us," Bruins guard Malcolm Lee said. "We knew this was going to be a big game not only because of the rivalry but because we're still trying to get in the running for the Pac-10 title. So we knew it was going to be a big game and we came out hard."
Five observations from the game:
1The Bruins finally put together a complete game
The Bruins have been notorious for playing well one half and not so well the other, but against the Trojans, they put out a full game's worth of effort.
They had a small stretch at the end of the second half when USC made a run to cut a nine point lead to one at halftime, but the Bruins regrouped and didn't slack off in the second half as they had against Arizona State, Oregon State and California in recent games.
"We just kept our minds in the game," said Lee, who had 13 points and again played stellar defense. "Right before the halftime break they made a little run and all the guys in the locker room were just like, 'we have to keep our head in the game.'
"We were up at halftime at their place when we played them and we were like 'we have to put another half together' and that’s what we did. We kept our mentality straight and the game went well."
2Reeves Nelson shined on the defensive end
Nelson has taken a lot of heat for his defensive effort at times this season, but his play against USC's Nikola Vucevic in the second half was crucial to USC's victory.
Vucevic seemed to find a hole in UCLA's defense late in the first half and he scored eight points in the final 4:47 of the first half and added six more in the first six minutes of the second half--all on easy layups.
Nelson then went to coach Ben Howland and asked to guard Vucevic one-on-one instead of trying to hedge or plug off screens. It worked as Vucevic didn't score again in the game, going 0-4 from the field after making seven of his first 12 shots.
Vucevic finished with 18 points and seven rebounds, but had only six points and one rebound in the second half.
"This is definitely Reeves’ best defensive performances of the year and his career here at UCLA," Howland said. "Vucevic is so hard to guard one on one that’s why I was so pleased with Reeves. He wanted that challenge and he accepted it and did a great job for us."
Nelson, who had eight points and 11 rebounds, said he had to try something after Vucevic kept burning the Bruins on screen and roll plays.
"I was tired of seeing him either roll to the basket for a wide open layup or passing out for an open layup so I asked him to go one on one," Nelson said. "He’s a great player and he can score any way in the post. I was just trying to make him take tough shots and fortunately the tough shots didn’t go in."
3Lazeric Jones took his energy level up a notch
Jones is always one of the most energetic UCLA players on the court, but he seemed extra motivated Wednesday against USC.
Maybe it was his poor showing the last time he went up against the Trojans, when he was 0-7 from the field and scored only two points.
But Jones seemed to be everywhere Wednesday night, including when he made the play of the game by racing the length of the court to block a Donte Smith fast-break layup attempt with 4:24 to play. He finished with only nine points but also had five rebounds--one shy of his career high--which is another sign of hustle and effort.
"I felt like last game I wasn’t really myself so I wanted to prove to my teammates that I’m here for them and I’m ready to go to battle with them," Jones said.
But Jones, a junior college transfer in his first year at UCLA, said there might have been another source of motivation.
"I felt like I wasn't a true Bruin until I beat USC," he said.
The only down note for Jones was that he fell hard on his left (non-shooting) hand while attempting a dunk and had to have X-rays after the game. The unofficial reading showed no break or fracture, but it will be read officially in the morning, a school spokesman said.
4Joshua Smith delivered on his promise to dunk
Smith, the 6-10, 305-pound center who acknowledged this week that he's played too soft around the rim this season, had two big dunks in the first half, sending a clear message that he had no intentions of dilly-dallying in the paint.
The dunks were on his first two shot attempts of the game and in between, he was fouled making a move to the basket. Smith, who played a career-high 29 minutes, finished with 15 points and six rebounds.
"I’m just realizing where I am," Smith said. "I’d probably say in the first half of the season when I was that close to the basket, I didn’t realize I was that close and I was laying stuff up. And dunking is just a little energy boost for the crowd and the team."
5The Bruins ruled the glass in the second half
As mentioned, UCLA out-rebounded USC, 24-11 in the second half, and ended up with a 39-25 edge for the game. This was the same team that out-rebounded UCLA, 38-24, less than a month earlier at the Galen Center.
USC had 12 second-chance points Wednesday, but only one in the second half. The Trojans had only three offensive rebounds in the second half and didn't get one until there was 9:17 left to play.
A strong defensive effort that limited USC to 30.4 percent shooting in the second half helped.
"We got Josh and Reeves in there, those are two big bodies to move," said Tyler Honeycutt, who had nine rebounds. "And getting stops. Credit that to getting defensive rebounds."
USC's Alex Stepheson, who had 16 rebounds the last time the teams met, had only eight on Wednesday.
"I think the fact that Josh was able to play 29 minutes and present a size factor and makes it harder to rebound over him," Howland said.