It was early in the second half, and USC was ahead by double-digits when the chants started at the Galen Center.
“Overrated,” they bellowed, softly at first but soon turning into a stadium-wide jeer aimed at No. 8 UCLA, which USC took down on Wednesday in front of a sold-out, raucous crowd of 10,258 people.
But the crowd wasn’t done having fun. They chanted, “Thank you, Lonzo” when Bruins freshman phenom Lonzo Ball missed a pair of free throws that gave all fans free Chick-Fil-A. Then, with five minutes to play, the “overrated” chants started again, sandwiched in between a high-flying putback jam by junior guard Elijah Stewart and an and-one dunk by sophomore forward Chimezie Metu.
And, for good measure, with the game out of reach in the final minutes, “Just like football” rained down, a gleeful reference to the 36-14 beatdown that USC’s football team put on UCLA in Pasadena last November.
Take a moment to appreciate what happened on Wednesday night at the Galen Center. There it was, a crowd actually getting into a non-football USC sport, the most excited a basketball home crowd has been in some time.
While it’s unlikely that the energy for future games will eclipse that of a matchup against a crosstown rival, USC has to hope that what occurred both on the court and in the stands against UCLA serves as a blueprint for the remainder of the season.
“It was great,” Metu said about the sellout crowd. “I just wish it was like that every game.”
“That,” as in the line for students to enter the arena wrapping around the stadium, the usually half-empty section of the stadium filling up an hour before tip-off, tickets for the game selling out a month beforehand, the parking lots around Galen Center displaying “FULL” signs and traffic on the nearby surface streets slowing to an absolute crawl.
Inside, it was just as spectacular. USC beat UCLA for the sixth straight time in men’s basketball or football — four in a row men’s hoops — and the Trojan faithful rubbed it in as much as they could. The capacity crowd cheered and chanted without being prompted by DJ Mal-ski, who typically has to encourage fans to make noise.
“This was as good an atmosphere as I’ve seen,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “It was just a great college basketball environment … This atmosphere was just sensational.”
On the court, it was like the teams switched jerseys. The Bruins and their high-powered offense — that ranks third in the NCAA in scoring at 92.2 points per game — were held to just 76. The Trojans, who have struggled shooting the ball early in conference play, drilled nine 3-pointers in the first half alone en route to dropping 50 on the Bruins at halftime.
It didn’t start out that well. USC trailed 8-0 right off the bat, looking jumpy and over-amped, while an emphatic follow jam by Ball had the crowd oohing and aahing. But after going down 20-10, it was like a light switch went off for the Trojans. There were steals and dunks, alley-oops and hustle plays and a whole lot of the net swishing from long distance.
Like that, the game was tied, and then USC went ahead. Before you knew it, Stewart drilled a deep 3-pointer at the first half buzzer to put the Trojans up by double-digits, sending a dejected Bruins team to the locker room.
By the end of the game, USC had sent UCLA into low-key panic mode. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Bruins stayed in the locker room for nearly half an hour after the game, holding a lengthy team meeting.
Maybe this UCLA team isn’t as good as everyone thought it would be (the Bruins also lost to Arizona last Saturday) when it was hyped as a national championship contender, and Ball — who scored 15 points but committed a whopping seven turnovers — still needs time to develop after being heralded as the next big thing. Perhaps he still is. And perhaps the Bruins simply had an off night.
The Trojans can’t think about that, though. They have to take the momentum off this win against a top-10 opponent and hope that it translates to another win in Washington next week. Given their inconsistent conference play following a 13-0 start, this could potentially be a season-defining win that sparks a late-season push for a better Pac-12 and NCAA tournament seeding.
And hopefully, went they return home on Feb. 9 to play Oregon State, the Galen Center will be just as energized as it was against UCLA. Both the team and the crowd — as the kids say — were absolutely “lit” on Wednesday. Now, it’s all about keeping the fuse burning.
Eric He is a sophomore studying print and digital journalism. He is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, Grinding Gears, runs on Fridays.