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Trojans Add to Bruins' Woes

February 09, 2003|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

UCLA can still remember the good old days when it sat on top of the Pacific 10 Conference.

That was three weeks ago.

Today the Bruins find themselves rushing back in the pack after dropping a 72-68 contest to USC, before 4,354 at the Sports Arena. And the Trojans, who have struggled much of the season, continue their surge.

In a back-and-forth contest that featured 11 lead changes in the second half, Ebony Hoffman got USC the victory when she tipped in a missed free throw by Meghan Gnekow with 12 seconds left. The basket put USC up, 70-66, and enabled the Trojans to withstand a final layup by UCLA's Michelle Greco with 1.8 seconds.

USC improved to 11-12 overall and 6-6 in the conference.

Trojan guard Tiffany Hicks, who was fouled on the ensuing inbound pass, made two free throws for the final margin.

Hoffman, who had 21 points and a career-best 20 rebounds, gave credit to assistant coach Steve Brooks for her key play.

"He told me that UCLA had been pushing me toward the inside during free throws," Hoffman said. "So he told me to fake toward the middle and go back around the baseline. And it worked."

What also worked was a balance in the Trojan offense. Besides Hoffman, USC got 18 points (and five three-point baskets) from Rometra Craig, and 15 points from Gnekow.

The Trojans have won five of their last six and can sense momentum on their side going into the last six games of conference play.

The opposite is happening to the Bruins (12-9, 7-5).

All of the holes UCLA successfully hid when it won its first six conference games are widening with every game. The lack of a consistent rebounder is becoming more pronounced, as USC's 46-36 edge Saturday suggests. If Greco, the Pac-10 scoring leader, is on her game, defenders try to keep others from hurting them.

That happened Saturday. Greco (13 of 25) had 28 points and Lisa Willis (seven of 12, including four three-pointers) chipped in with 18 off the bench and UCLA fought back from a 33-26 halftime deficit. But the rest of the team combined to make only 10 of 38 shots. Nikki Blue, the Pac-10's No. 4 scorer, made only four of 14 from the field. Blue missed a 12-footer in the lane with 12 seconds to play that could have tied the score.

"We have to get that feeling back," UCLA Coach Kathy Olivier said. "We have to figure a way to get more points. We're going to see a lot more zones; that's how teams have been playing us lately."

The Trojan roster, already short-handed because of a knee injury to Aisha Hollans, was hit again when Coach Chris Gobrecht said in a statement that guard Jessica Cheeks would sit out the rest of the season to "concentrate on priorities."

Sources close to the program said the problem was academics.

The loss of Cheeks left USC with only seven scholarship players.

"That works OK with one game during the week, but not two," Gobrecht said.

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