It wasn’t pretty. But then again, rivalry games rarely are.
The USC men’s basketball team lost the rebounding battle by double digits, made just 63 percent of its free throws and nearly coughed up a late lead, but in the end the Trojans (15-9, 7-5) did just enough to come away with a 68-64 win against UCLA on Sunday night at the Galen Center.
The victory marked the first time since 2004 that USC has won both regular season meetings with the Bruins.
“I’ll remember this for a while,” senior guard Dwight Lewis said. “To be able to beat them here and get the season sweep on them is great.”
With 2:18 left to play and the Trojans leading 56-52, senior forward Marcus Johnson stole the ball from UCLA’s Jerime Anderson and raced downcourt for a two-handed dunk, bringing the crowd of 8,836 to its feet. USC held on from there, going 8 of 10 from the free throw line in the last two minutes to secure the victory — the Trojans’ first ever over UCLA (11-13, 6-6) at the Galen Center — and move into sole possession of third place in the Pac-10.
“The whole game we had with them the first time, that was an aberration,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said, referring to a 67-46 blowout of the Bruins in Westwood on Jan. 16. “We said it was going to be down to the wire, and it was.”
In his final game against UCLA, Lewis led all scorers with 23 points on 8 of 13 shooting. Redshirt junior guard Donte Smith came off the bench to hit several key shots, tying a career-high with 12 points and providing the boost USC needed after falling behind early in the second half.
“That’s my role,” Smith said. “Just bring high energy off the bench, play lockdown defense, make big plays for us.”
Energy was clearly lacking for much of the game, as the Trojans were thoroughly outrebounded, 46-25. Focus also proved to be an issue, with USC committing four straight turnovers after taking a 56-47 lead with 6:16 left. Then there were the two fouls on Bruin 3-point attempts in the final minute of the game.
“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.
But while the Trojans seemingly tried their best to give the game away, UCLA continuously failed to take advantage. The Bruins shot 39 percent from the field and turned the ball over 20 times. Guards Michael Roll and Malcolm Lee combined for 34 points in the losing effort.
Despite enduring a three-minute scoreless stretch, USC led by as many as eight points in the first half and, after a Lewis lay-up and Johnson jumper, went into the locker room with a 32-29 lead.
The Bruins jumped in front five minutes into the second half when Lee drained a 3-pointer to make it 38-35. But sophomore forward Nikola Vucevic grabbed a key rebound and senior guard Mike Gerrity was fouled on a driving layup and drained the ensuing free throw to tie the score, sparking a 21-9 run that gave the Trojans the lead for good.
“We played through some bad stretches,” O’Neill said. “I’m very proud of our team. I thought they gave a great, great effort in the second half to beat a team that was playing very well.”
That team also happened to be a bitter crosstown rival, which explains why the victory, as sloppy as it was, wasn’t just any victory.
“It was fun, it was fun,” Lewis said, smiling. “The student section was going crazy. Gotta love it, gotta love a rivalry game.”