LOS ANGELES — It had been a while since UCLA and USC played a truly meaningful basketball game.
Maybe you could point to 2011, when at least both teams made the NCAA Tournament. But both of those games took place early in the conference season, as USC was scuffling along trying to find itself before getting hot late. Really, you’d have to go all the way back to 2009, when a USC team led by Taj Gibson and DeMar DeRozan took on a Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday-led UCLA team to find a game with anything resembling the importance or talent level of this season’s matchup.
Regardless of which one you pick, somewhere between five and seven years is a long time for a rivalry to lay dormant with largely immaterial matchups year after year.
With both Steve Alford and Andy Enfield’s teams featuring in the top-28 of the Associated Press’s poll, this one just felt different than in recent years. It mattered, so to speak, especially given the schools’ previous five matchups under those two third-year coaches. Alford came into this one with a 5-0 record against Enfield at USC, with an average margin of victory of 20.4.
That combination of factors is what made USC’s 89-75 victory on Wednesday all the sweeter.
“It’s sort of been one-sided just because naturally, they’ve been better,” junior guard Julian Jacobs said. “They’ve produced something like four or five pros in the past couple of years since I’ve been here. They’ve pretty much been a better ball club. But as you guys can see, we’re a force to be reckoned with and we just wanted to go out and prove that.”
Force to be reckoned with might not even be an exaggeration for the now 15-3 Trojans, who became the first Pac-12 team to get to four wins and the first team to get to two road wins. Honestly, the final score line made this one look a bit closer than it appeared.
The Trojans had stretched out an 18-point lead at the half and extended it to 21 before a mini-run by UCLA pulled it back to 10. However, the Bruins could never push it back below nine as every time it seemed like they got a big bucket, USC simply came down and knocked down a big 3. The dagger came with four minutes left, as Jordan McLaughlin hit a 3 from the wing to finish it out.
Chemezie Metu led the way for USC, setting the tone early with 14 first-half points and finishing with 21 and eight rebounds, including an 8-10 performance from the field. McLaughlin was the player to lead the team in scoring with 23, but Metu was the key as his athleticism and activity level was just a bit too much for the Bruins. McLaughlin also scored 23 points in a game that featured a bit more added intensity than has been seen in the recent past.
Bennie Boatwright picked up a rather physical flagrant foul on a lay-up attempt in transition by Prince Ali. Coach Alford picked up a technical foul in the first half. There were veritable, authentic shows of emotion on both sides, and the crowd at Pauley Pavilion responded in kind by really getting into it.
It was a new kind of fervor that had been sidelined over the last few seasons. An energy that seems to have been awakened by two programs that could genuinely be building toward something strong in the future due to their coaches’ ability to recruit superior talent.
All of that means one thing.
The Battle for Los Angeles is back on in earnest on the hardwood, and the rest of the Pac-12 should take note.