Coming off a bad away loss to Oregon State, the Trojans came into this game with a bit of urgency regarding their Pac-10 hopes.
This compounded with the loss of O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson, who carried the Trojans to a victory in Pauley Pavilion last year, left many questions for the Trojans to answer against the cross-town rival UCLA Bruins.
This game seemed to be an uphill battle despite the Trojans being relatively hot, winning 7 of their last 9. However, as this rivalry goes, all of the background is out the window.
Freshman Jrue Holiday buried the first bucket of the game on an uncontested three-pointer to kick things off; the nerves apparently didn't affect him.
The Bruins opened up with a 5-0 run that was quickly silenced by USC's freshman wonder Demar DeRozan. DeRozan led the Trojans with a career-high 15 points.
"Demar was great for us early on," said Coach Tim Floyd. "His performance in this game shows how much he has grown as a player over a short amount of time this season."
UCLA was getting whatever they wanted early on, the experienced guard play of Josh Shipp and Darren Collision hurt the Trojans as they penetrated in the key early.
USC went to their strength on the inside in Taj Gibson and looked to get him established early. The Trojans moved the ball around patiently, looking for the perfect inside look.
Gibson finished with a respectable13 points and five rebounds as his opportunities were limited on the inside.
"They play good team defense," said Gibson. "The key was crowded all night, and the pressure that their guards put on us made it hard to get the ball in the post."
Collison got into the lane at will and seemed to find a rhythm early offensively, getting an old-fashioned three point play off a screen after hitting a long-distance bomb. He led all scorers with 18 points on the night.
The Bruins shot well early from three-point range with Holiday burying two and Collison burying one. UCLA seemed very confident going into the first media timeout with a 15-8 lead.
The Trojans could not seem to find a rhythm offensively, they moved the ball around freely but no one seemed like they wanted to pull the trigger.
Meanwhile, Collison continued to carve up the Trojan defense with sharp drives the basket and crafty lay-ups from point-blank range. The Trojans had no answer for the guard play of the Bruin's early.
The nerves did not seem to calm until around the 11-minute mark when they finally settled into an offensive and defensive comfort zone.
There was a lot of jawing back and forth from both teams, and the heated nature of the rivalry reared its head as Drew Gordon and Daniel Hackett got into a bit of a scuffle underneath the bruins basket.
"I love these kinds of games," said Hackett. "The crowd has so much energy that you can't help but energized yourself unless there is something wrong with you."
The referees then looked to take back control of the game, calling minor things such as coach's box warnings on Tim Floyd, and calling anything that hinted at being excessive.
This slowed the game down and seemed to benefit the Trojans as DeRozan made a string of jumpshots to cut the Bruin lead to three points, and Hackett cut it to one with a teardrop from five feet out.
The Trojans always kept it close but could never quite get over the hump, even a dunk from Hackett which energized both the crowd and his teammates could not give them the lift they needed.
Every time USC made a run, UCLA would respond in kind, however a layup from Keith Wilkinson sent the Trojans into the locker room with momentum for the second half.
That momentum was short-lived, however. The Bruins came out with a quick one-two punch on a fastbreak layup from Collison and a jumper from the top of the key by Alfred Aboya. This pushed the lead to seven before USC got their first score of the second half.
DeRozan continued to be a spark in the early-going of the second half however, as the jumpers he drained in the first half gave him all the confidence he needed. He scored four straight points on hard drives to the basket.
The Trojans finally seized the lead for the first time in the game at the 17-minute mark on a transition layup from Dwight Lewis, who had been quiet up to that point.
Hackett pushed the Trojan lead to four to the uproar of the fans as the momentum shifted before anyone could even realize it, and Coach Ben Howland called a quick timeout to try to stop the Trojan run.
Out of the timeout, Marcus Johnson hit a layup after being fouled and pushed the lead to seven. However, UCLA slowly chipped away at the lead and cut it to three before Coach Tim Floyd was forced to take a timeout.
Out of the timeout, signs of life came from Taj Gibson as he drained a 10 foot baseline jumper over Aboya and gathered an offensive rebound to go with a put-back layup.
Both teams traded buckets and the lead remained close as no team could quite pull away from the other.
"We took quality shots," said Floyd. "But we couldn't get the stops we needed to get over the hump."
A pair of Shipp free throws knotted the game at 51 at the 10-minute mark and a pull up jumper from Collison gave the Bruins a two-point lead with 8:30 remaining in the half.
With the score still tied at the 4:30 mark, Holiday made a quick hesitation move to get by Dwight Lewis and throw a high arcing runner in over the outstretched arms of Gibson. This gave UCLA a two-point edge going into the final media timeout of the half.
Nikola Dragovich provided an unexpected spark for the Bruins late, hitting clutch free throws and trading a three point bucket with Hackett to push the Bruin lead to 5 with two minutes remaining.
The Trojans made a very crucial stop defensively and faced a three-point deficit with a minute to go. On the ensuing possession, the Trojans failed to get a good shot attempt and were forced to foul Shipp.
Shipp calmly drained two free throws pushing the lead to five. USC took a long time to get a lay-up from Marcus Johnson.
They then fouled Collison out of the timeout, who sank a pressure free throw to put the game out of reach for the Trojans.