On its most recent road swing, UCLA hardly looked like the second-best team in the Pac-12.
It lost at Oregon State, a team that has finished eighth or lower in four of head coach Craig Robinson’s first five seasons. It barely held on at Oregon, a team that had dropped five of its first six conference games.
And yet, it entered Saturday night 2.5 games behind Arizona and half-a-game ahead of a third-place quartet. In retrospect, the preseason talk of a vastly improved conference was perhaps overblown.
Despite its recent hiccups, the Bruins sauntered into the Galen Center and — after a sloppy start — smacked around rival USC in an 83-73 victory. Nothing like a game against the Trojans to get back on track; when the two teams last met, UCLA ran away with a 107-73 win to open league play.
The latest crosstown stomping didn’t open in the same style. UCLA shot 37.1 percent from the field in the first half, putting the team on track for its worst single-game mark of the season.
Only three players — Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Norman Powell — scored points for the Bruins until nearly 12 minutes of the game had elapsed.
USC, meanwhile, drilled 59.3 percent before the break — an astounding rate that should have resulted in more than its six-point halftime lead.
UCLA’s zone defense has made it vulnerable to 3-point attempts this season, allowing opponents to take 42.3 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Only five teams in the country give up 3-point attempts at a higher rate.
Trojans guard Byron Wesley took advantage early, drilling all four of his shots from downtown. Averaging 16.9 points per game previously, the junior had 18 by halftime. Guard Pe’Shon Howard had six assists, and created a wide-open dunk for big man D.J. Haley to end the first period.
Still, there was hope. In wins this season, UCLA had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.75. In losses that number dropped to 1.03.
After coughing the ball up three times in the first four minutes, the Bruins steadied through the rest of the period. At the break, they had 10 assists to six turnovers — good for a 1.67 ratio.
Whatever head coach Steve Alford told UCLA in the locker room must have worked. The team ran out with the switch entirely flipped opening the second half on a blistering 10-0 run.
The Trojans couldn’t maintain their hot start, and the deficit only grew. Less than six minutes into the period, UCLA’s run had reached 19-5. Eight minutes in, it was up to 24-5.
Powell finished with a team-high 21 points, scoring all but four after the break. Adams, coming off a 0-for-9 showing against the Beavers, shot 5-of-11 for 17 points. Anderson again flirted with a triple double, chipping in 15 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.