February 3, 2018 by Sam Dodge
LOS ANGELES – USC wanted this one. UCLA absolutely needed it.
Behind 44 combined points from Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh, UCLA made the final surge to down USC 82-79 Saturday afternoon in Pauley Pavilion.
The Trojans drop to 17-7 and 8-3 in conference, and their six-game win streak is history.
To be clear: Tonight was a rivalry classic. With USC playing itself back into the tournament the last month, they wanted a win tonight for some insurance heading into the tough Arizona swing.
UCLA needed something to get them on the right side of the bubble. Two hungry teams traded body blows, totaling 18 lead changes and 12 ties.
The rim was just more kind to the Bruins, as UCLA shot 51 percent shooting overall, and 46 percent from deep. USC clawed to 43 and 30 percent, respectively.
Despite the disparity, both teams finished with a solid 1.1 points a possession.
“This is a very tough environment in which to win,” Andy Enfield said. “We just didn’t make the shots we needed to win the game.
“We’ll watch the film. Gameplan for the next one.”
UCLA finally showed up in force for their most-needed game of the season. (Sam Dodge)
Despite the adversity, USC had all the chances to leave Westwood with a win. They led 69-60 with eight minutes left before an 11-0 UCLA run took the lead back. Jordan McLaughlin also found sharpshooter Jonah Matthews wide-open on the last possession to try to force overtime.
“Nothing really went wrong,” McLaughlin said, “he just missed the shot.”
While McLaughlin dished eight assists, passing former UCLA Darrick Martin for No. 9 all-time in conference, he lost the touted matchup with Aaron Holiday. He scored only five points on eight shots, missing several open jumpers.
The rest of the backcourt compensated, including explosive efforts from Elijah Stewart and Shaqquan Aaron. Stewart tallied 20 points on 13 shots, while Aaron erupted for 12 points in the first 10 minutes to stake USC out to an 11-point lead.
He ended up with 14 on the night, including three of five from beyond the arc.
To add to the “close, but no cigar” nature of the game, Stewart banked a put-back at the first-half horn to make it a 43-40 lead. Officials waved it off after review, but it was within milliseconds.
Aaron, Stewart and McLaughlin responded defensively to keep the Trojans afloat. They forced 12 turnovers, outscoring the Bruins 16-2 off giveaways.
Metu battled with Welsh, but the senior Bruin won it for UCLA on his birthday. (Sam Dodge)
The real battle was lost in a familiar place: the USC interior defense.
Time and again this season, from Reid Travis to Noah Dickerson to Tres Tinkle, USC has not contained versatile big men. Chimezie Metu and Nick Rakocevic fought hard to change the narrative, only to fade late.
The 7-foot Welsh connected on less than half of his shots in the first half, with Metu and Rakocevic poking and swatting several drives away.
Welsh took advantage in the final five minutes after a double-technical put Rakocevic on the bench.
Gyorgy Goloman ripped Rakocevic to the floor, and the officials called a flagrant foul. After a lengthy review, they determined No. 31 has retaliated with a kick.
“I just told Nick,” Enfield said, “that he should have just let him be.”
A gimpy Bennie Boatwright, playing his first action in two weeks after a foot blister, entered.
Boatwright finished with just two points, despite his foot appearing fine for large stretches. (Sam Dodge)
Welsh attacked the undermanned interior, first hitting a hook shot for a 71-69 lead.
He then pick-and-popped for a wide-open bomb to push the Bruins ahead for good with under a minute left. After two more free throws, he finished with 21 points on 15 shots.
Both Metu and Rakocevic notched double-doubles, with the former scoring 11 points and snaring 12 boards. The latter chipped in 14 points and 10 rebounds.
After restoring their season last month, USC starts off this one on the wrong note. They have only a few days to right the ship before their toughest trip of the season to the state of Arizona.
While Arizona State is reeling after their 16-0 start, they field an offense that can punish just like the UCLA one. Arizona offers the same frontcourt problems with potential All-American Deandre Ayton.
January was about reentering the tournament picture. February is about reasserting themselves in the conference race.
They need a split to stay alive. Obviously, a sweep changes the entire story, putting USC right there with the Wildcats going into the final stretch.
The missed chance in Westwood tastes bad, but the opportunity to wash it away awaits.