LOS ANGELES -- The emotions ran high Sunday at the Galen Center, but the UCLA Bruins had a calming presence.
UCLA and USC were each assessed technical fouls after a mild second-half dust up during the Bruins’ 75-59 victory over the Trojans, and referees called an intentional foul after a hard foul on UCLA leading scorer Shabazz Muhammad, but Larry Drew II wouldn't let his team get out of control.
Play was physical and chippy throughout the game with bodies regularly crashing to the floor, but Drew knew better than to get caught up in an emotional outburst. The senior point guard -- the only senior on the UCLA team this season -- preached calm and maturity to his band of freshmen phenoms, and cooler heads prevailed as the Bruins ended the tense rivalry game without incident.
“We were up 20 or 17 or whatever and I’m like we don’t need to fight back or talk back or argue back,” Drew said. “Just go out there and play the game and win. Talk after.”
Going into the game, Bruins fans might have worried that Drew would be the first one to get out of control. After UCLA’s last meeting with USC, one that ended in a 75-71 Trojans’ victory, Drew did plenty of talking after.
Asked how he would approach the game the next time UCLA faced its crosstown rival, he said he would “go out there and kill them, for real.” It was a surprisingly candid response, and, though a poor choice of words, showed exactly how Drew felt about losing to USC.
He said he thought about those comments as he took the floor Sunday, but remembered that keeping everyone level-headed would be the best path to success. When the game threatened to get out of control, Drew took charge.
“When I said it, I didn’t think too much about it, but it’s true," Drew said Sunday. “I wanted to come out here and beat these guys as bad as ever. But this year, this game, I had to be the fifth-year senior that the team can rely on.”
Drew took charge right away. He made a 3-pointer for the first points of the game, made a nice pass to David Wear for a dunk and a 9-2 UCLA lead, then drained another 3-pointer to put the Bruins up 12-4 less than four minutes into the game.
He had eight points and five assists in the first half as the Bruins blew open a 47-26 lead and set the tone, making it clear they would not fall to the Trojans on this day. But even though his statistics weren’t as productive in the second half -- he finished with 11 points and six assists -- his contributions were no less important.
When things between Norman Powell and Omar Oraby got physical midway through the second half and each player received technical fouls, Drew spoke up. And when USC’s Byron Wesley sent Muhammad to the floor on a fast-break attempt, Drew told his team not to retaliate.
“Larry Drew just did a great job of being a leader and holding us together and making sure nobody does anything stupid,” Kyle Anderson said. “So thank God we have great leaders.”
Drew has stepped up his game on the court in recent weeks. After spending the better part of the season as a facilitator, he has become more aggressive as a shooter. Over the past five games, he’s shooting 57.6 percent (19-of-33) and a whopping 69.2 percent (9-of-13) on 3-pointers.
He still leads the nation in assists (199) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.9), and is fifth in assists per game (7.7), but by averaging 11 points over the past five games, he has shown he’s no longer the pass-only player that teams such as USC sagged off defensively earlier this season because they didn’t view him as a scoring threat.
“It’s done a lot for us,” Anderson said of Drew’s newfound shooting prowess. “It’s able to free guys up and make guys guard him, which opens up his drive and opens up easy baskets for us because he’s such a good passer. He’s going to continue to make shots and the offense is going to continue to gel.”
That type of play is going to help the Bruins on the court, but Drew's maturity is what the young Bruins need more going down the stretch. UCLA is battling for first place in the Pac-12 conference, and over the next two weeks will face several teams with different stakes on the line.
As the regular season comes to a close, teams are fighting to get into the NCAA tournament, trying to win conference titles and jockeying for seeding in the Pac-12 tournament. Drew’s leadership figures to come in handy as games get more and more magnified.
“We handled it pretty well,” forward David Wear said. “Things got a little physical there, but we had to slow down and get our composure and say hey, we’re not going to feed into that. I think that’s what we did and that’s the attitude we’re going to take into these next games.”
After the win, despite all of the pent-up emotion, the Bruins acted as if they had been there before. When USC won at Pauley, the Trojans danced and jumped in celebration on UCLA’s court. The Bruins hinted they would do the same, but Sunday simply walked off the court and shook hands.
“I think everyone realized that we were the better team and we’re expected to win in a game like this and we did,” Wear said. “We just kept our heads and remembered we’re UCLA. We’re expected to win these type of games.”
It was a surprising sign of maturity for a young team that often this season has lacked such poise, and an attitude that no doubt will come in handy should it stick.
“We play with a lot of emotion,” Drew said. “In my opinion it’s fun when you play with emotion. I like to see that kind of fight in my guys, but you have to know how to keep that in check and we did that tonight. I just hope it carries over to the next game.”
With Drew leading the way, that shouldn’t be a problem.