The men’s basketball team heads across the city to rematch with No. 6 UCLA on Saturday, facing off against a Bruins team hungry for revenge.
The last time these two teams met, the Trojans delivered a stinging 84-76 loss in the Galen Center. At the time, UCLA was sitting at No. 8 in the country, carried on the back of standout freshman Lonzo Ball. At guard, Ball averages 35.7 points per game and delivers explosive performances that earned him a spot on the shortlist for the Wooden Award.
But at the Galen Center against the Trojans, Ball’s offensive spark sputtered out, sinking only 15 points as the unranked Trojans knocked off their fiercest rivals.
Now, the Trojans must travel to the UCLA home court to compete against a team that used that loss as a springboard. UCLA took a hit in their ranking after falling to USC. But after manhandling Washington and Washington State, the Bruins took down Oregon to climb back into the top 10 and knock on the door of the top five rankings.
After their loss at the Galen Center, Ball and the Bruins made it clear that the loss would only fuel them in the future. No matter what, the team has made it clear — losing will not be an option for the Bruins on Saturday.
“Even losing one is uncomfortable, let alone four in a row,” UCLA center Thomas Welsh said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “This is a big game for sure. We want to keep our win steak going and end that losing streak against USC.”
But the Trojans won’t be the same team that the Bruins faced back in January either. The return of sophomore Bennie Boatwright at the start of February paved the way to a win streak that was only ended by No. 7 Oregon. Although they remain unranked nationally, the Trojans sit on the cusp of breaking into the AP Top 25 poll with 16 votes. In the Pac-12, the team sits in fifth place, just behind unranked 9-4 Cal. The other teams ahead of USC — Arizona, Oregon and UCLA — are all ranked in the AP Top 10.
If the last five games have proved anything for the Trojans, it’s that they can hang with the top in the conference and the top in the country. Despite losing to Oregon at home, the Trojans surged into a comeback late in the game, pulling within 3 points in the final quarter. A dry spell from the field sent the comeback to a grinding halt, but the Trojans took away a note of hope from the game.
“It shows we can play with anybody,” freshman guard De’Anthony Melton said. “We need to learn how to close out games.”
Against UCLA, the Trojans will face several factors in their search for a regular season sweep of their crosstown rivals. They’ll need to shut down Ball on both the interior and the exterior. Keeping the freshman out of the paint and out of his element from behind the line was the key to the Trojans’ first victory, but it’s not a performance that Ball will look to repeat.
Finally, the Trojans must find a spark outside of the typical scoring core of Boatwright, junior guard Jordan McLaughlin and sophomore forward Chimezie Metu. Last game, that was redshirt sophomore guard Shaqquan Aaron, who earned Pac-12 Player of the Week after notching a career-high 23 points against the Bruins.
Although the top three teams are dominating the discussion of the Pac-12 Championship race, a victory on Saturday could keep USC in that conversation.
The past month has shown that the Trojans can play with anybody. On Saturday, they’ll have the chance to prove that they’re here to win, not just play.