The first half of the UCLA-USC matchup in the opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament was so bad, so laughably bad, that it’s a surprise the teams mustered the courage to emerge from the locker rooms after halftime.
And with the Staples Center about as full as a sumo wrestler after a rice cake, each chuckle coming from the sparse audience was heard loud and clear.
Eventually UCLA cleaned it up, overcame an early eight-point deficit and cruised to a 55-40 win over the Trojans to advance to a 2:30 p.m. matchup today in the second round against Arizona.
“I didn’t think that we were starting to panic,” senior guard Lazeric Jones said. “Obviously you get a little rattled sometimes when things aren’t going your way. But I felt like we calmed down eventually. We started to take better shots and move the ball around better. But I mean, it happens. Basketball is a game of runs. They had theirs and luckily we had ours in the second half.”
The Bruins may not have been panicking, but the handful of fans in the crowd might have once they realized their tickets were non-refundable.
The Los Angeles rivals had not scored almost three minutes in, combined to make just 5-of-29 attempts to start the game and managed a combined 19 points in the game’s first 11:58. USC took control by way of the offensive inadequacies, settling down to grab a 21-13 lead.
The Bruins, though, responded by tightening up defensively and holding the Trojans scoreless for the last 3:58 of the half to take a 22-21 lead into the break.
“Obviously the first 10, 12 minutes of the first half we were really a step slow, out of sync,” UCLA head coach Ben Howland said. “The premise of their defense is to pack everybody in and make you take jump shots. We took about five jump shots right away early in the game and missed all of them. It seemed like it continued to snow ball. Then finally Zeke hit a few and we got down 7 or 8 and brought us back.”
Howland almost negated the Bruins’ size advantage over the thin Trojans by benching sophomore center Joshua Smith for the first half for being four minutes late to the team bus, which traveled the short distance from the J.W. Marriott in L.A. Live to Staples Center, Smith actually beating the bus to the game on foot.
In his stead, David and Travis Wear tried to capitalize but could not, combining for 20 points and nine rebounds. Worse, UCLA was not making USC pay for collapsing into the post as the backcourt duo of Jones and Jerime Anderson opened the game a combined 2-of-10 shooting.
The Trojans faded quickly in the second half, however, and the Bruins opened with an 18-4 run, eventually putting the finishing touches on one of USC’s worst seasons in history.
“Honestly, I don’t know the answer,” Trojans guard Byron Wesley said. “We came out strong. We had lots of energy in the first half. We had lots of momentum. Second half, we had the same game plan. Wanted to come out strong, but things just didn’t pan out.”
UCLA now moves on to face a Wildcats team in a state of flux, as head coach Sean Miller announced the suspension of freshman point guard Josiah Turner for a violation of team rules. Turner had eight points and five rebounds in 35 minutes in the team’s Feb. 25 matchup in Tucson, a 65-63 Arizona win.
“They’ll rally,” Howland said. “I mean, they’re coming off a tough loss against a rival school, Arizona State, and you know they’re going to want to play well. I think they suspended Josiah back in November, and they played very well without him. So I don’t know that they’re going to skip much of a beat in that respect, and probably brings their guys even more unified.”