USC 75, UCLA 71: Where to now?

Here’s the Daily News game story (with a USC focus), my sidebar on UCLA’s overtime loss, as well as Jill Painter’s column.

Now, on to some takeaways from arguably the most embarrassing outing of the Bruins’ season — one that also cemented them as the most vexing team in the conference.

Defensive lapses: UCLA shouldn’t have the excuse of youth anymore, not with more than half the season already gone. The loss to Cal Poly could be chalked up to growing pains. These Bruins made strides during a 10-game winning streak, and truly tapped into their potential with a win at Arizona.

Wednesday night undid any of that progress.

Again, UCLA’s interior defense looked soft and welcoming — even as USC’s 7-footers Dewayne Dedmon and Omar Oraby logged just 22 combined minutes. The performance of backup forward Aaron Fuller sums up the Bruins’ performance well. The 6-foot-6 senior entered the game averaging 3.5 points, but found himself with 13 by halftime. Fuller scored a season-high 15 mostly on easy looks within two or three feet of the basket. It was just his second double-digit effort of the year.

“A lot of them were layups,” Ben Howland said. “A lot of them were just poor rotations, not rotating down. … I thought a lot of the baskets that Fuller got in the first half — we had like one transition bucket where we gave up a layup over the top. We made a number of errors.”

USC forward Eric Wise, who had just two points and four rebounds at halftime, ended up with 12 points and 11 rebounds — his third double-double of the year.

Sluggish starts: Is UCLA playing down to its competition? Everyone supposedly knew how important the rivalry game was, that USC’s season could be made with one win at Pauley Pavilion. There was a full week until the next competition, so big matchup loomed as a distraction.

Shabazz Muhammad had a flu this week, but he still scored 22 points on 7-of-18 shooting. It’s not like his illness made every other Bruin miss a combined 13 attempts from downtown, or ruined UCLA’s ability to rotate on defense. The Trojans have been playing better under interim coach Bob Cantu, but they still weren’t among the top teams in the conference.

Whenever the Bruins are questioned about rebounding or defense, their go-to answer has been effort. Nevertheless, their performances this season have charted the type of path you’d find at Six Flags.

“Obviously, we have the talent to come back and overcome any kind of obstacle like that, but why are we down in the first place?” point guard Larry Drew II said. “We shouldn’t be down. We should play that hard from the jump and we have to figure that out and as a team we have to understand that and that’s the only way we’re going to get better.”

No easy answers: UCLA will return to action next week coming off back-to-back losses for the first time this season. Ken Pomeroy, who gave the Bruins an 82 percent chance to beat USC, projects three more losses through the rest of the regular season (Cal, Stanford, Arizona). That would give UCLA a 11-7 record in the Pac-12, the same as 2012.

Can they out-perform the readjusted expectations?

“We can be really, really good at times and we can be really, really bad at times,” Drew said.

“We’ve got some soul-searching to do,” said Howland, who may need a Final Four to save his job at this point.

Bonus quote, from Larry Drew II: “I know how I’m going to approach the game, to go out there and kill them. I’m very disappointed we lost this on our home court. … Obviously we have games before then and that will be our focus and main priority. When we play SC again, it’s going to be war.”

Too little, too late?