When UCLA and USC opened the Pacific 10 Conference season Dec. 28, a game UCLA won, the Bruins had the look of a team with NCAA tournament potential and the Trojans looked like a team still finding itself.
As USC closed out the conference regular season Saturday with an 80-77 victory over UCLA in front of 5,222 in the Sports Arena, the positions looked reversed from the 62-61 win by the Bruins nearly two months ago.
USC (18-9 overall, 12-6 in the Pac-10) had to survive a missed three-point shot by Nikki Blue at the buzzer to force overtime. The Trojans have their most regular-season wins since going 19-8 in 1996-97 -- the last season they made the NCAA field of 64. Up first, though, is the Pac-10 tournament in San Jose. The Trojans are seeded fourth and play fifth-seeded Arizona on Saturday at 7:15 p.m.
Coach Mark Trakh said his team has made a strong argument for an at-large NCAA berth.
"The way I'm looking at it, we're in a three-way tie [with Oregon and Arizona State] at 12-6. How can they not take those three teams? You're going to take a 7-7 or 6-8 team from another conference? You've got to look at that hard," Trakh said.
"We're going to the [Pac-10] tournament thinking we've got to win at least one more game. But I think we're pretty good at 18-9. Our RPI is going to be under 40, we have no bad losses and have five quality wins now. I think the three 12-6 teams [along with conference champion Stanford] are in, or should be in."
The Bruins (16-11, 10-8) have lost four of their last five -- they were 5-6 without the injured Noelle Quinn, whose surgically repaired left knee finally might be strong enough for her to play next weekend. USC is seeded sixth and will will play third-seeded Arizona State at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
Arizona State won both conference games between the teams.
"The cool thing about the Pac-10 tournament is you get to play a team for the third time," Coach Kathy Olivier said of Arizona State. "So hopefully we're going to make some adjustments and be ready for their physical play."
Freshman guard Brynn Cameron, who made five three-point baskets, scored 17 points and had 10 rebounds for USC.
UCLA junior guard Lisa Willis led all scorers with 25 points and had 10 rebounds.