For the most part, the USC-UCLA showdowns of recent years have been highly competitive, often dramatic clashes befitting the rivalry.
There was no indication in the first half Thursday night that this was going to be one of those.
Not with the No. 10-ranked Bruins taking an 18-point halftime lead inside Pauley Pavilion and the Trojans looking disjointed.
But sure enough, it all came down to the last 15 seconds.
After UCLA’s Jayden Clark connected on his second 3-point attempt of the possession to put the hosts up 1, the gameplan for USC was clear. Give the ball to the hottest shooter in the game — Reese Dixon-Waters.
The call was for Boogie Ellis to set a screen for Dixon-Waters to come around and drive to the basket. The problem was when Ellis went to set the screen, he didn’t plant his feet before the collision, causing the referees to call an easy offensive foul with 7 seconds on the clock.
The Trojans weren’t done just yet, though.
Dixon-Waters was able to immediately foul UCLA’s David Singleton, who proceeded to miss the first free throw. After Singleton hit the second free throw, USC called a timeout and designed for Ellis — their fastest player and best scorer — to drive down the court and take the last shot. Unfortunately, he missed the step-back jumper, ending the suspense as the Bruins held on for the 60-58 win.
While Ellis is USC’s best scorer, he did not have his best night, scoring 10 points on 4 for 11 from the field. One could wonder whether it made more sense to give the ball to the scorching Dixon-Waters with the game on the line, on a night when he hit all 7 of his field goals and both of his free throws for a team-high 16 points .
Drew Peterson ended with 9 points on 4-of-8 shooting, 5 rebounds and 3 assists as USC dropped its second straight conference game to fall to 11-5 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-12.
UCLA (14-2, 5-0) is probably a more talented team than USC, but the Trojans ultimately rose to the occasion yet again in the rivalry series. However, after a run of five straight wins over the Bruins, the Trojans have now lost the last three dating back to last March.
For USC to have a chance to win Thursday night, it stood to reason that the Trojans would need emerging big man Joshua Morgan to continue his great season and make his presence felt. Instead, he was overmatched by UCLA’s freshman Adem Bona. Morgan didn’t even get a rebound in this game, while scoring just 2 points with 1 block over 19 minutes.
With Morgan clearly struggling against the more physical player in Bona, coach Andy Enfield elected to go with Harrison Hornery for most of the second half. Morgan only played w minutes in the second half. Hornery seemed to spark the defense as they were able to slow down the previously dominant UCLA offense, which shot just 22.7 percent after halftime.
Clark led the Bruins with 15 points, while Jaquez and Singleton scored 12 each.
Even in the tough loss to UCLA, there were encouraging signs from the young guys. The star offensively late in the second half was Dixon-Waters, but Kobe Johnson (8 points, 4 rebounds) also had a sneaky good game. He had the tough matchup of going against the more physical Jaime Jaquez Jr. and held him to 12 points on 5-13 from the field.
Johnson showed he can play physical tight defense against someone who outweighs him by 30 pounds. Johnson just needs to work on hitting open jumpers, as he puts himself in good scoring position often enough.
While freshman Tre White struggled in this one, hitting just 3 of 10 shots (1 of 6 on 3s) for 7 points, but the talent is clearly there — he just needs to execute his shots. Every shot he took was a clean shot, but just like Johnson, he needs to execute at a higher percentage.
This type of game shows how much this team could use a tall big-man like sidelined five-star freshman Vincent Iwuchukwu.
While it’s a frustrating loss against a very talented UCLA, the combination of the young players flashing potential and the vaunted recruiting class coming in for next season, there is a lot to look forward to for the program.
In the meantime, the challenge for the current team is to simply play on a consistent level. This basketball team has shown it can play at an elite level at times, which makes a two-game losing skid (including a loss to a struggling Washington State team) much more frustrating. If the Trojans played the first half like they played the second half, Thursday night would have looked a lot different.