For no good reason other than that they crave wins, the third-ranked UCLA Bruins beat USC, 57-54, Friday night at Staples Center in the semifinals of the Pacific 10 Conference tournament.
Top-seeded UCLA (30-3) will play No. 2 seed Stanford in the 3 p.m. championship game today. The Cardinal, who beat Washington State 75-68 in the other semifinal, lost to UCLA twice this year -- 76-67 at Maples Pavilion and 77-67 in overtime at Pauley Pavilion. The Trojans (21-11) will wait for their near-certain NCAA bid to come Sunday.
UCLA Coach Ben Howland has led the Bruins to three consecutive 30-win seasons and that has happened for only two other schools -- Kentucky under Adolph Rupp and again under a combined tenure of Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith; and Memphis the last three seasons under John Calipari.
But this game wasn't about historic statistics. It was about the emotions of postseason basketball, of two neighborhood rivals playing for the third time in a season and where nobody wanted to leave the court the loser.
With the discouraging view of teary-eyed forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute clutching his left ankle and being carried by his shoulders off the court, stuck with a halftime rearview of USC, which was outfoxing the Bruins with a triangle-and-two defense, UCLA seemed down and out.
But Bruins freshman Kevin Love, who scored 11 points in a row for UCLA during a 15-2 run to start the second half, said: "We didn't want to be in the summer, after our season with them talking trash to us," Love said. "We couldn't lose this game."
And when the Trojans were down by seven points with 2:58 left, here's what Trojans freshman O.J. Mayo did:
Make a quick three-point basket, then follow up with a twisting layup, giving USC the oomph to get to within a point in the last 32 seconds. "He's a great, great player," Howland said of Mayo. "He made big plays."
A UCLA loss felt likely when, with 6:22 left in the first half, Mbah a Moute, UCLA's second-best rebounder and second-best defender, had a layup tipped away by Taj Gibson. As Mbah a Moute landed on Davon Jefferson's foot, his left ankle crumpled beneath him. The junior moaned as he came to the bench.
On Feb. 2, Mbah a Moute had sprained the same ankle against Arizona. He missed games against Washington State and Washington and only last weekend said he felt spring back in his legs.
"This time the pain was so bad I thought I broke it," Mbah a Moute said.
Halftime X-rays were negative and after the game, with his foot stuck in a bucket of ice, Mbah a Moute was smiling. "Now it feels better than the last time I sprained it," he said.
As the Bruins sagged, the Trojans opened a 34-26 lead before guard Darren Collison (13 points) made a 20-footer to beat the halftime buzzer. And an upbeat Mbah a Moute told his teammates in the locker room: "Get back on the court and play defense," he said.
The Bruins also opened the second half with a reconfigured offensive attack. Russell Westbrook moved to point guard and James Keefe became an active enabler with some precise passing. UCLA scored the first 12 points and 15 of the first 17. USC's only offensive offering was a teardrop bank shot by Daniel Hackett.
UCLA's largest lead in the second half was eight points, 46-38, but when Mayo (15 points, six rebounds, four assists) popped open for a three-pointer with 2:58 left, the Trojans were to within 54-50. After Love missed a three-pointer, Mayo responded with a layup. And with 32 seconds left, and after two Hackett free throws, UCLA led by a point, 55-54.
Westbrook then dribbled across half court, barely avoiding Hackett's pickpocket attempt until the ball was passed to Collison. The junior is an 89.2% free-throw shooter and he made both of the ensuing attempts to put UCLA up, 57-54. From there it was up to Mayo. With Josh Shipp in front of him, Mayo probed with his dribble but didn't make headway. With two seconds left and a smidgen of space, Mayo launched a three-pointer that bounced off the back of the rim.
"They switched [defenders] on a screen," Mayo said, "so I just had to melt the clock down and create separation. I thought I made it. It felt good coming off. I just missed the shot."
Shipp said he was "a little surprised" that Mayo took so much time to shoot. But he wasn't surprised at UCLA's fortitude. "We keep saying it," Shipp said. "We take nothing for granted. We don't want to lose another game this season."
Today, 3:15 p.m.
* Coverage, D5