Saturday, January 16, 2010
USC hands UCLA historic loss
By Ramona Shelburne
Norm Chow was still sitting on the UCLA side of the stands at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon while USC athletic director Mike Garrett sat quietly on the other side of the court.
Then at halftime, UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel delivered a rousing speech to celebrate the Bruins' victory in the EagleBank Bowl last month and took a playful jab at new USC coach Lane Kiffin.
"If you paid any kind of attention to what's going on in college football this week, you can see the landscape is slightly shifting," Neuheisel said to thunderous applause.
"We want to welcome Coach Kiffin to Los Angeles. We have competed with him before and we look forward to competing with him and his program again."
And that folks, was your UCLA highlight from Saturday's basketball game in Westwood.
Practically everything else that happened to the Bruins in a 67-46 loss to the Trojans falls into the cover-your-eyes category.
The Trojans didn't just beat Ben Howland's Bruins, they crushed and embarrassed them on their home court.
It was USC's biggest win over the Bruins since the 1944-45 season, when the Trojans won 53-25.
It's not hard to identify why.
Simply, USC (11-6, 3-2) is better, older, and more athletic than UCLA (7-10, 2-3), which was forced to resort to a zone defense just to keep things close.
The Trojans also knowingly have only 13 more games to play after the university imposed sanctions on the program two weeks ago, taking away the team's opportunity to play in the postseason this year.
"In the beginning of the season, we said one of our goals was to win a Pac-10 championship outright so we were going to play hard in the Pac-10 no matter what," said senior guard Dwight Lewis, who scored a game-high 24 points.
"Especially with these sanctions now, we just know we have to keep playing and trying to get our championship."
While that sense of urgency was strikingly evident in USC's play Saturday, it's not the first time it has been seen this season.
Earlier, before the sanctions were announced, that urgency was simply called intensity.
It manifested itself in USC's swarming man-to-man defense that propelled the Trojans to an eight-game winning streak. And it was no accident.
"I always tell our guys, play like you have a shot of rabies in you," USC coach Kevin O'Neill said. "I always took over programs that were decimated. You couldn't outskill people, so what you had to do was outguard them. I became, out of necessity, a guy that believes in man-to-man defense."
O'Neill was careful not to criticize Howland's decision to play zone, saying, "Ben is a great coach. He's proven his mettle over years and years and years. He's doing what he has to do to help his team win."
But O'Neill was steadfast in his refusal to ever consider employing the same tactic if he happened to coach a team with a deficiency in athleticism, as Howland finds himself with this season.
"I just don't play zone," he said. "I don't play zone. Every program I've gone to, if we're getting shredded man-to-man, try harder. We don't play zone."
Last weekend in road losses to Stanford and California, USC's defense bent a bit. The 67 points USC gave up to Cal ended a nine-game streak of holding opponents to 56 points or fewer.
O'Neill said it was a lack of intensity, not tired legs or wounded hearts still dealing with the reality of the postseason ban.
But who can say for sure?
Whatever the case, it wasn't a problem again Saturday against the Bruins.
"We stepped it up and got back to what got us that eight-game winning streak, which was playing defense and digging in," senior point guard Mike Gerrity said.
"This is it for us, this Pac-10 season, and the title is what we want."
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.