All the numbers suggested UCLA (19-3, 6-3) would thump USC (18-4, 5-4) on Wednesday night at the Galen Center, but the numbers were misleading.
The Trojans’ 84-76 victory was an anomaly. Redshirt sophomore forward Shaqquan Aaron, the seventh man off USC’s bench, led the game in scoring with 23 points. He more than doubled the total from UCLA’s top two scorers this season, senior guard Bryce Alford and freshman forward TJ Leaf — the third and sixth top scorers in the Pac-12, respectively.
“Shaqquan keeps getting better,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “He just made his mind up to play harder.”
The Louisville transfer started the first 15 games this season, but a prolonged shooting slump plagued him. In USC’s last six games, Aaron started just once, averaging only 18.6 minutes per game. On Wednesday, he overcame his slump, sparking the Trojan offense with 14 points in 13 minutes in the first half. The Trojans were plus-18 with him on the court.
Meanwhile, USC’s four freshmen committed one turnover while UCLA’s freshman trio gave up nine. UCLA freshman point guard Lonzo Ball, featured on the midseason Oscar Robertson National Player of the Year watchlist, committed a career-high seven turnovers. Entering the game, Ball had a 3.58 assist-to-turnover ratio — more than a full point better than any other Pac-12 guard. Yet, on Wednesday his ratio was 4-to-9 (.57).
The Trojans also had five double-digit scorers compared to UCLA’s four. For only the third time this season, the Bruins had less double digit scorers than their foes. They are now 0-3 in those games.
Bolstered by their high-scoring stars, USC notched 50 points in the first half for the first time this season. It was only the fourth half this season USC has eclipsed the 50-point mark in a half. Conversely, UCLA averages 93 points per game. Their 76 points was their tied-second lowest output this season.
After falling behind 8-0, USC tried its zone defense.
“It seemed to be working. We stuck with it the rest of the game. To hold them to 76 was an accomplishment,” Enfield said.
Making buckets from behind the line gave the Trojans the offensive advantage. USC scored 42 points from 14 3-pointers, more than double its season average. UCLA scored 18 points from 3-point range, 45 percent under their season average of 33.
“When your power forward is 6-foot-3, you better stretch the floor,” Enfield said. “You better make some threes.”
His team lost the battle in the paint 42-24 but managed to win by sticking to the gameplan.
“We had to play small and make some threes,” Enfield said. “Our point of emphasis was to contest the three.”
His team tied its season high with 14 total. UCLA made only six of 20.
Most surprising of all, freshman forward Harrison Henderson matched senior guard Bryce Alford with 3-point shots. When freshman forward Nick Rakocevic picked up his third foul with 2:02 to play in the first half, Enfield summoned Henderson.
Henderson’s late first-half cameo was the freshman’s fifth Pac-12 appearance. When he swished a high-arching three from the corner, even the Galen announcer was stunned.
“Eeeelijah Henderson!” he misspoke.
Though Henderson did not play in the second half, his 3-point shot crescendoed USC’s late first-half run that established them as the team to beat.
“Harrison Henderson deserves a lot of credit,” Enfield said. “He came in and wasn’t afraid of the moment.”
In comparison, Alford’s 3-point shooting was a season low. The senior averages over 17 points per game and ranks ninth all-time in the Pac-12 with 284 3-point field goals. Entering the game he already had 18 percent more 3-point field goals (71) than second-best in the league, ASU’s Torian Graham (60). But on Wednesday, he shot 1-of-5 from deep and 1-of-7 overall.
Prior to the game, USC’s 3-point defense ranked seventh in the Pac-12, and the Trojans had allowed 173 threes — tied second worst in the league with UCLA. In their previous two games, Arizona and Arizona State made 19 3-point buckets.
The difference behind Wednesday’s deviations and the season’s standards might be traced to the capacity crowd at the Galen Center.
“I just wish it was like this every night,” sophomore forward Chimezie Metu said.
The Galen Center was averaging 3,693 patrons at 12 men’s basketball games prior to Wednesday’s event. Against UCLA, the arena was filled with 10,000-plus — just another anomaly.
“The energy before the game and throughout the game was the best I’ve ever seen,” Enfield said. “I’ve been coaching for 22 years. It’s as good as any environment I’ve seen.”
While the win counts as just one victory for the Trojans and one loss for the Bruins, Enfield hopes it means more to the fans.
“I think [the win] means more for everyone in this building tonight,” Enfield said. “If you’re a USC fan, you can come here and have some fun. Any time you sell the Galen Center out and have all the students here and the fans, this is a big time college atmosphere.”
A big-time college atmosphere deserves a big-time team. With recent wins versus Arizona State and UCLA, the Trojans are challenging college basketball’s West Coast hegemony. But to prove that Wednesday’s win was not a rarity, USC has a ways to go.