There were no major upsets heading into Friday's semi-final games of the Pac-10 Tournament, with the top-4 teams all advancing. It was a tall order for No. 4 seed USC (21-11, 11-7), taking on No. 1 seed UCLA (30-3, 16-2), a team many pundits have already penciled in for the Final 4. Despite being a 9-point underdog, O.J. Mayo and the Trojans put up a valiant effort that fell just short.
The Trojans had a much shorter bench and much shorter players, and still managed to keep themselves in the game with tremendous defensive intensity.
But a double-double by Kevin Love was the difference for the Bruins, who advance to the Pac-10 Tournament finals with a hard-fought 57-54 victory.
"It is something we can build on as we move forward," Coach Floyd said to the media after the game. "A lot of people are picking UCLA to win the national championship. We had an opportunity to put it into overtime, but we didn't accomplish it."
Right off the bat the Trojans came out flat on offense, almost as if they didn't realize they were no longer playing Arizona State's tough 2-3 zone. Instead of driving to the rim, USC settled for outside shots and failed to light up the scoreboard.
It didn't take long, however, for penetration against the Bruin's man defense to begin. Forward Davon Jefferson scored 8 of the first 10 points for the Trojans and recorded the assist on the other bucket by Daniel Hackett. Jefferson was the go-to guy, with 12 points and 5 boards by the break.
USC's first six buckets were all layups or dunks and Tim Floyd's crew was well on their way to establishing their inside game, holding a 16-10 points in the paint advantage at the half.
Superstar O.J. Mayo got off to a slow start but heated up as the half wore on. He chipped in 8 points and more importantly had 4 assists with only one turnover.
Keith Wilkinson came off the bench and spotted up for two huge 3-point field goals late in the half while giving Jefferson a rest.
The Southern California defense was also impressive in the first 20 minutes, limiting the No. 2 ranked Bruins to under 36% shooting.
USC shot an even 50% and led UCLA 34-28 at the half.
At halftime Ben Howland adjusted his offense to deal with the punishing triangle and two defense of the Trojans. His decision paid off.
The Bruins came out in the second stanza with a 12-0 and 15-2 run fueled by Kevin Love. Love put up 11 points in the first four minutes of the half including two old fashion three-point plays. His heroics turned a 6-point deficit into a 7-point lead.
"We knew that they were going to come back in the second half and make a run," Floyd said after the game. "I think the run in the second half was a critical point in the game, but we got our heads up and got back into the game by guarding well for stretches."
For the 8th straight game the Trojans out rebounded their opponent, but the Bruins did turn up their intensity on the glass in the 2nd half. Love was a big part of that, grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds to go along with his game-high 19 points.
"We won the rebounding battle," Floyd noted. "I think the turnover differential in the 2nd half had something to do with the outcome of the game."
As hot as UCLA came out after the break, the Trojans were just as cold from the field. In the first 12 minutes USC managed just two made field goals, digging a hole it never climbed out of.
After making every other shot in the first half, the Trojans made just one out of three in the 2nd and had only six made shots outside of the key for the entire game.
Still, despite their struggles, Mayo and the Trojans had a shot to tie the game in the final seconds.
Down by 7, Mayo drained a long three and then drove to the rim, hitting an improbable shot as he fell to the floor, cutting the UCLA lead to 54-52 with around 2 minutes left.
Then with the clock winding down and USC down by 3, Mayo brought the ball up, calling a play designed to go to Dwight Lewis. The Bruins switched on defense and Mayo knew what he had to do.
"We ran a play off a screen for Dwight who was going to flare out, but we switched on a screen so I decided to run the clock down and create some separation," Mayo said.
Mayo's shot was just off the mark and Hackett had no time for another after he rebounded the ball.
"I thought I made it," Mayo said. "It came off right, it felt good coming off."
Next up the Trojans will gather at the Galen Center on Sunday to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute went down hard after missing a shot with just over 6 min left in the first half. He did not return.
Play of the 1st half - Lewis acting very aggressive, drove to the rim and finishe a reverse layup, putting USC up 17-11 with 9 minutes left.
USC lost the turnover battle 13-8. Mayo had just 2 turnovers after having 10 in his last outing against UCLA.
Kevin Love had a double-double, caused numerous fouls on Trojan defenders and had zero fouls of his own.
After a strong first half, Jefferson was held scoreless and reboundless in the 2nd half.