Sunday, January 9, 2011
Basketball: USC 63, UCLA 52
By Pedro Moura
LOS ANGELES -- That's three in a row now for second-year USC coach Kevin O'Neill, who hasn't lost to crosstown rival UCLA as the Trojans' coach.
Yes, he knows that means a lot to Trojan fans. No, he's not thinking about it too much.
"I guess that's important around here," O'Neill said after his team beat the Bruins, 63-52, before a sellout crowd at the Galen Center in a solid all-around game befitting an O'Neill-coached team. "I feel very fortunate we've been able to beat these guys four straight times and three since I've been here.
"It won't go on forever."
He's right, of course. But if his team puts up a few more consistent performances like they did Sunday, he could have the area buzzing because of the Trojans' NCAA Tournament candidacy -- not a rivalry win. USC (10-6, 2-1 in Pac-10) played defense worthy of a tournament appearance against the Bruins, especially in the second half -- when the Trojans forced UCLA into 26 percent shooting.
Even crafty forward Reeves Nelson, who had a game-high 12 points entering halftime, was ineffective in the second half as UCLA converted only seven shots from the field and six free throws in a 22-point half. USC defensive stopper Marcus Simmons neutralized UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt, forcing Honeycutt into seven turnovers and 3-of-10 shooting. Mammoth-sized center Josh Smith was effective in spurts but played only 22 minutes due to foul trouble. And starting guards Malcolm Lee and Lazeric Jones combined to shoot 1-of-12 from the field.
The Trojans got 20 points from leading scorer Nikola Vucevic, 10 from guard Jio Fontan and a key nine from Maurice Jones, who added four steals and three assists in 37 minutes.
The packed Galen Center crowd, especially, made a difference in the second half when the Trojans overcome a 30-28 halftime deficit to take a 45-37 lead less than six minutes into the half -- a switch that held through the rest of the game. The student section was full, with classes starting back up Monday, and multiple players referenced feeling more energy in the arena than they could remember at USC.
"I think we definitely [fed off the crowd]," Fontan said. "I think this was the first time that we had a packed crowd that was with us completely, and it wasn't close."
"Tonight we gave them a lot to cheer for and having them behind us kinda led us to the win."
Player of the game: Stepheson finished with 13 points and a game-high 16 rebounds in a game-high 38 minutes. He made 5-of-10 shots and also recorded a steal in his first fully-healthy game this season.
He fractured his left hand in the season opener against UC Irvine and then played the next 14 games with a brace on that hand -- clearly affected by the injury but still playing, as O'Neill noted multiple times. But his performance was big Sunday, and the senior forward played big in the post too.
"Alex Stepheson's energy on the boards was key for us," O'Neill said. "His effort was tremendous."
UCLA coach Ben Howland said the Bruins had no answer for Stepheson on the boards whether they used Smith, Nelson or reserve forward Brendan Lane. He kept picking up rebounds.
"Stepheson really did a nice job in the middle and we didn't control him," Howland said. "He's really playing some good ball."
Stat of the game: The Trojans forced the Bruins into 17 turnovers and limited themselves to only 11. The points-off-turnover stat was also telling: 20 for USC, four for UCLA.
Said O'Neill: "The key for us: We only turned it over 11 times. We gave ourselves a chance every time down."
Quote of the game: "The win means everything to us. Being from L.A., I know the rivalry. It's bragging rights. The whole city is watching." -- Stepheson
Just as it is in football, the USC-UCLA game is important to the players because of its long-term implications. Win and you can toss in your friends and neighbors' faces for a month. Lose and -- well, you get the picture.
Notes: Among the football players in attendance: running back Dillon Baxter, linebacker Devon Kennard and receiver Robert Woods. Plenty more helped to fill up the Galen Center as well...USC had never before won a game at Galen Center in front of a sellout crowd of 10,258. The Trojans were 0-3 in those games, two of which were against the Bruins, entering Sunday...This was the Trojans' first win when trailing at the half and UCLA's first loss when ahead at the half...Said Howland of Vucevic: "I look at mock drafts and I just don't understand why Vucevic isn't up there. He does everything. Shoots well, rebounds well and has a real presence for them out there."
Stepheson talked after the game about UCLA's Smith, his own performance in the low block and the importance of grabbing a home win before heading off to the Oregon schools next week: