Last season, while serving his NCAA-mandated year on the bench after transferring to USC from Fordham, junior guard Jio Fontan only traveled on one of the Trojans’ road trips — the trek to Westwood, where he watched USC dismantle UCLA in Pauley Pavilion 67-46.
It was the biggest win by the Trojans over the Bruins since the 1945 season.
This year, Fontan was finally able to play against the crosstown rivals, scoring 10 points during USC’s 63-52 win in front of a sold-out crowd at the Galen Center Jan. 9.
“We would be lying if we said it was just another game,” Fontan said. “We wanted that game a lot more than we want some of the other games.”
In that game, junior forward Nikola Vucevic scored a game-high 20 points, helping the Trojans overcome a poor start and a halftime deficit.
Senior forward Alex Stepheson contributed 13 points and 16 rebounds, including six offensive rebounds.
This time around, Stepheson expects the Bruins to attack Vucevic and himself, but they will be prepared.
“I’m excited for the challenge,” Stepheson said. “They’re just as hungry as we are, but it’ll be a good matchup.”
Bruins center Joshua Smith fouled out with eight points.
“We know that [UCLA] will play better next time,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill after the game.
The Trojans will find out whether the Bruins will play better in the second and final match-up of the rivalry in the regular season tonight at Pauley Pavilion.
“I’m sure they’re going to make some adjustments,” O’Neill said. “We’re making some, but I hope we’re able to execute.”
Since their last meeting, the teams have gone in opposite directions, with the Bruins going 5-1 and the Trojans compiling a 2-4 record.
Both teams just came off their road trips, where they both beat Arizona State and lost to Arizona.
The first half of conference play is done and the Trojans are now focused on controlling what they can control.
“For us, we’re trying to fight for a [NCAA tournament berth],” O’Neill said. “Whether we belong in that picture is debatable or not, but we hope we have an opportunity for that.”
During his tenure at USC, O’Neill is undefeated in three games against UCLA, and the Trojans have beaten the Bruins four games in a row.
But for USC to extend that win streak, O’Neill believes the team will need to rely on its defense.
“I want us to play with a defensive edge,” O’Neill said. “This is a fact — if we don’t defend, we can lose to anyone. If we do defend, we have an opportunity to beat anyone.”
With the opportunity to start the second half of conference play on the right foot, USC is looking to push its win streak to five games over UCLA, which would be the longest since the team won a school-record 42 consecutive games over a span of 12 seasons (1932-43).
“If we’re fortunate to win tomorrow, it’ll be huge for us,” O’Neill said. “If we do what we’re supposed to do, [we’ll be] fine.
Here are some more thoughts from O’Neill after Tuesday’s practice: