No matter which college basketball powerhouses USC competes against in the non-conference portion of its schedule, the two biggest games of the season are against UCLA.
In his first three games against the crosstown rivals, USC coach Kevin O’Neill is undefeated.
“I guess that is important around here,” O’Neill said about beating UCLA. “It is not just another game. It is a big win for us.”
A standing-room-only student section packed the Galen Center to see USC (10-6, 2-1) earn its fourth consecutive victory against UCLA (9-6, 1-2) on Sunday, 63-52.
“[The win] means everything to us,” senior forward Alex Stepheson said. “The whole city of Los Angeles watches this game.”
Feeding off the rowdy sold-out crowd, the Trojans opened the game on a 10-4 run. But after junior guard Jio Fontan committed a flagrant foul against UCLA forward Reeves Nelson, the Bruins went on a 5-0 run and led 30-28 by halftime.
UCLA came into the game having never lost in the eight games that they led at halftime. Unfazed, the Trojans set the tempo to begin the second half, opening on a 12-4 run and never relinquishing the lead.
“The crowd helped pick us up,” Stepheson said. “They were the sixth man, and gave us an energy boost in the second half when we needed it.”
The Trojans received dominant performances from Stepheson and junior forward Nikola Vucevic, who had a game-high 20 points. Stepheson added 13 points and 16 rebounds, including six offensive rebounds.
In the first half, senior guard Marcus Simmons was able to contain forward Tyler Honeycutt, the Bruins’ second leading scorer. It took Honeycutt more than 10 minutes to score his first basket, at which point Simmons was resting on the bench. Honeycutt only scored four points in the first half.
With Simmons sidelined for much of the second half with foul trouble, guards Fontan, Bryce Jones and Donte Smith split time frustrating Honeycutt, who finished with 10 points and tied his season-high with seven turnovers.
While Honeycutt did not provide his standard offensive production in the first half, forward Reeves Nelson, UCLA’s leading scorer, flourished. Nelson made his first five field goal attempts, and finished the opening half with 12 points. USC managed to make adjustments defensively in the second half, however, only allowing Nelson to score two points after halftime.
Fontan had 10 points and three assists for the Trojans. Freshman guard Maurice Jones added nine points and four steals.
Despite the 11-point win, O’Neill was not entirely pleased with his team’s performance, pointing out the fact that Bruins made 57 percent of their shots in the first half, and the Trojans only made half of their free throw attempts.
“We know that [UCLA] will play better next time,” O’Neill said. “We will have to play better the entire game to have a chance to win.”
USC will embark on their first road trip of the Pac-10 Conference season, traveling to Eugene, Ore. to play Oregon on Thursday, and then to Corvallis, Ore. to take on Oregon State on Saturday.