It was all there for USC -- third place all to itself in the Pacific 10 Conference regular season and a chance to sweep UCLA. That would have all but assured that the NCAA selection committee gave the Trojans a long look for a tournament berth.
But USC couldn't handle the pressure -- specifically the Bruins' full-court pressure in the final eight minutes of the game. As the Trojans melted down during that stretch, the Bruins outscored them by 11 points to erase a seven-point deficit and pull out a 68-64 victory Sunday in front of 8,094, the third-largest crowd to see women's basketball in Pauley Pavilion.
The victory for UCLA, which had 26 points from Nikki Blue and 18 from Noelle Quinn, enabled the Bruins (16-11, 11-7) to finish conference play in a three-way tie for third with USC (15-12, 11-7) and Arizona State.
USC, which had 14 points from Rometra Craig and 13 points and 15 rebounds from Ebony Hoffman, will be seeded third for the Pac-10 tournament, which opens in San Jose on Friday. The Trojans will play Washington, seeded sixth, in the first quarterfinal game on Saturday morning. UCLA and Arizona State are seeded fourth and fifth and will play each other Saturday evening.
Until then the Trojans will contemplate how to fix an offense that was flustered into 27 turnovers by the Bruins, including seven in that final eight minutes when USC had great difficulty simply getting across midcourt.
"Bottom line, their guard play was better than ours," USC Coach Chris Gobrecht said. "But even though their press was effective, I thought the bigger turnovers came [earlier in the game] in the half court when we were trying to execute the offense. Those were killers, and some were inexcusable."
Also hard for Gobrecht to take was UCLA's big edge at the free-throw line. The Bruins made 26 of 29 shots, including 20 of 21 in the second half. USC made five of six free throws, with three attempts in each half.
"Twenty-nine to six. That's a typo, right?" Gobrecht said. "I've got to look at the film to find what you could and could not do.... I asked one official, 'Are we fouling them?' and they said, 'It looks that way.' "
UCLA Coach Kathy Olivier said she went to the press mainly to try to speed up the tempo.
"All day we could have been more active defensively, and [the coaches] thought, 'How can we get ourselves going?' " Olivier said.
"We couldn't go into it too soon, because we have a lot of people playing a lot of minutes. So we waited for the perfect time, and I thought our team did a great job of forcing some turnovers and picking up the tempo."
For much of the game, USC had tried to control things with rebounding (33-28) and three-point shooting (nine for 19). That formula helped give the Trojans a 28-26 halftime lead, and USC forged its biggest lead, 50-42, on an 18-footer by Craig with 10:25 left to play.
But, with 7:59 remaining, Blue stepped forward. She scored 17 of UCLA's final 22 points and was flawless from the free-throw line in those final eight minutes, making all nine attempts. For the game Blue made 14 of 15 free throws.
"I had watched a lot of film this week and saw I wasn't aggressive at all [in the first UCLA-USC game on Dec. 28]," Blue said. "I'm not a big guard, but I'm bigger than their guards. So I tried to take them to the basket. I think I'm a little better than them."