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COLLEGE BASKETBALL

USC finally makes itself at home against UCLA with a 68-64 win

Gritty defense carries Trojans to a not-so-pretty victory, but it's their first over the Bruins at the Galen Center, and gives them a sweep of the season series.

February 15, 2010|By Baxter Holmes

The UCLA-USC game used to be a high-class buffet for the NBA.

Four players who participated in it last season were drafted in the first round, and three more the year before that, including Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo.

This year, with the league having pecked both rosters clean, the game was more greasy spoon than gourmet feast Sunday night, making the Trojans' 68-64 win -- their first ever over UCLA at the Galen Center -- a faint vision of what used to be.

"We don't have those type of huge recruits," UCLA senior guard Michael Roll said recently. "But I think this game still matters a whole lot to the two schools."

This season, with both teams battling in a gridlocked Pacific 10 Conference race, it held considerable meaning.

USC (15-9 overall, 7-5 in the Pac-10) earned a season sweep of the Bruins for the first time since the 2003-04 season as well as a firm grip on third place in the conference standings.

"Any time you can beat UCLA, it's a special moment," said USC guard Dwight Lewis, who had a game-high 23 points. "Especially beat them twice in one year and get them the first time at Galen, it's a special moment."

Said Roll, who led UCLA with 21: "It's frustrating. Maybe in a week, I'll feel it more. Right now, it just has to sit there."

The significance of the Trojans' first home victory against UCLA since their new arena opened in 2006-07 was not lost on first-year USC Coach Kevin O'Neill, whose career record against the Bruins is now 2-0.

"From the time I sat in an interview with [Athletic Director] Mike Garrett, I knew how important it was," O'Neill said.

The loss makes an outright conference title unlikely for the Bruins (11-13, 6-6). Since Arizona and Arizona State joined the conference for the 1978-79 season, no Pac-10 team has won the regular-season title with six losses.

Sunday's showing drew 8,836, a far cry from the sold-out 10,258 that saw the previous two rivalry games here, but the game was much different than the 21-point USC win last month in Westwood.

UCLA dominated the rebounding, 46-25, for instance. "Normally, you don't lose too many games when you out-board an opponent by 20," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said.

But the Bruins' 24-for-61 shooting from the field (40.6%) and 20 turnovers hurt them more, and highlighted how these talent-deprived teams have produced some truly ugly basketball this season.

Bad passes sailed off target. Players dribbled off their feet into turnovers. Point-blank layups weren't converted.

And a few dunks went awry, such as USC's Marcus Johnson missing a thunderous attempt midway through the second half that careened off the rim and out of bounds.

Between the spotty play, highlights were few.

Example: After USC's Nikola Vucevic made a turnaround layup to give his team a 56-47 lead with 6 minutes 16 seconds left, the Trojans committed four straight turnovers and UCLA cut that lead to 56-52.

Johnson made a midcourt steal and scored on a two-handed slam with 2:17 left, a basket that seemed to seal the win . . . except more sloppy play followed before time ran out on the Bruins.

"If you're going down the stretch and you had a list of things you didn't want to do, we did them all," O'Neill said.

Yet his team won, and earned its biggest victory to date: a sweep of the cross-town rival.

"It hurts," UCLA forward Nikola Dragovic said. "They haven't swept us since I've been here. It really hurts."

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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