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They are a lot harder to tell apart

As the game Saturday shows, the gap in the UCLA-USC basketball rivalry is narrowing.

January 15, 2007|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

If it had been shirts versus skins, there would have been long stretches during the USC-UCLA basketball game Saturday when you wouldn't have known which team played for the NCAA title last season and which team lost 13 games.

USC was that athletic, that good.

But UCLA won, even with second-leading scorer Josh Shipp out because of a hamstring injury and key players effectively taken out of the game for significant stretches because of foul trouble and tough USC defense.

Therein lies the difference that remains between the Bruins and Trojans in a fast-closing rivalry.

Even after suffering its first defeat in a last-minute loss against Oregon, UCLA still wins some games it seemingly shouldn't -- it wasn't coincidence that USC swingman Nick Young said he felt like former Gonzaga star Adam Morrison after losing to the Bruins -- and USC still loses some games it could have won.

"Just the will to win," UCLA forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute said.

"We're a team that knows how to fight back," said center Lorenzo Mata, who made some key plays but also missed free throws that gave USC an opening. "We just kept our composure and fought back. It was a team effort."

UCLA missed some free throws, but USC did worse, missing the front end of three one-and-ones down the stretch, and a W morphed into an L.

"Our game plan, I would say we executed it for 30 minutes," Lodrick Stewart said. "We're going to learn a lot from this game, what we need to do and what we need to sustain for the whole game instead of losing focus for a couple of minutes. A couple of minutes can lose the game, and we proved that."

One of the striking things about UCLA's first visit to USC's new Galen Center was that not only the Trojans but also the Bruins seemed excited by it.

The Sports Arena was so dreary, UCLA would rather play on a true USC home court that has some juice to it than play in a half-empty shell of an arena.

"They're on the rise right now," Shipp said outside the locker room in street clothes, hoping he'll return Saturday against Arizona if he can't play against Arizona State on Thursday. "They have a really good team. The fans were energetic, and it was a hostile environment. The guys came together and got the win for us."

UCLA Coach Ben Howland, one of the head cheerleaders for the Pacific 10 Conference, didn't seem remotely begrudging when he complimented the Galen Center, a venue now more posh than storied Pauley Pavilion, which is due for its own planned upgrade.

"It's a beautiful building and a great venue ... ," Howland said. "A great atmosphere, and great for the fans and great for the city to have two good basketball teams playing here.

"It could have gone the other way. I'm just glad we made the play there at the end.

"I really am so proud of this team and their show of character to play in a tough environment and play on the road against a team I think is going to be in the NCAA tournament. I have no doubt about it. That's how good I think USC is."

Not good enough to overcome UCLA's confidence and moxie in the closing minutes, though, even though the Bruins had trailed by 10 points in a game Arron Afflalo turned into a 65-64 victory on a 15-foot basket with less than five seconds left.

"This was very important for us in terms of the league race and in terms of coming off the loss," Howland said. "Obviously, we didn't want to get another loss put on us."

The Bruins have been here before and come out ahead, and they looked like it.

"We finally took the lead with less than four minutes to go, and I called a timeout and said, 'It's 3-0,' " Howland said.

Point guard Darren Collison, who picked up some of the offensive load from Shipp and Afflalo, credited the Bruins' mind-set.

"With 22 seconds left, we were not thinking anything negative, just to get a bucket," Collison said. "I mean, that's a lot of time to score. We knew we were going to score. We just didn't know how."

That it was Afflalo who scored was appropriate enough after he failed to take the shot in the Oregon loss.

"I thought we had a good chance, but they're a veteran team and Arron Afflalo's a great player," Young said. "They ran a play for him and he took a tough shot, but he made it."

The next chapter in the rivalry comes Feb. 7 in Pauley Pavilion, but it's hard not to peek ahead to next season, when USC versus UCLA could take on national proportions with USC recruit O.J. Mayo and UCLA recruit Kevin Love in the fold.

But that's next season. This one's far from over, not after Saturday's sparring match.

"It shows we can compete with anyone as long as we play our game," Stewart said. "It's a 40-minute game. It's not 32, 39. You have to play the whole game. We kind of lost focus for a little bit, but we're going to learn from this game."

Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this report.

robyn.norwood@latimes.com

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