No. 7 California has not had it easy while building its school record-tying 10-game winning streak. Golden Bear Head Coach Joanne Boyle prefers it that way.
"In December when we had (losses) we really didn't handle adversity well, we kind of fell apart," Boyle said. "(Now) we're finding a way and we're staying together. That's kind of the difference."
Cal, which is off to its best conference start in school history, had to find a way against a pesky USC team that was coming off its most lopsided loss of the season. The Trojans, who lost to No. 9 Stanford by 28 points on Thursday, overcame double-digit deficits in the second half to push the Bears to the limit.
But Hampton, the Pac-10 Player of the Year as a sophomore in 2006-07, erased any hopes USC had of upsetting the first-place Bears when she put back a miss by teammate Ashley Walker to stave off the Trojans.
"I didn't even see anybody in front of me," said Hampton, who finished with a season-high 17 points and 11 rebounds for her second consecutive double-double. "I just got the rebound. Seventy percent of rebounds come off the weakside so I knew I had to go get the ball."
Walker had 21 points and 11 rebounds and intercepted a final desperation shot by the Trojans to seal the game for the Bears (18-2, 9-0), who have four wins of five points or fewer during their current streak.
USC's Briana Gilbreath stole a pass from the Walker and scored on a fastbreak to tie the game at 71-71 with 18 seconds remaining. The Bears tried to work the ball down to Walker on their ensuing possession but the Pac-10's leading scorer missed a short shot. Hampton rebounded the miss then leaned in for a short layup to help the Bears avoid the upset.
"With Dev being in there I knew if Ashley couldn't hit it we had a chance at the weakside rebound and that's exactly what happened at the end," Boyle said. "There's never a dull game with USC. Every time we play them it's a battle."
Gilbreath scored 21 points for USC (11-9, 5-4), two days after losing 71-53 at Stanford.
"Hampton and Walker, I'm going to send them flowers for graduation, have them picked up in a limo, whatever," Trojans' coach Mark Trakh said. "I'm glad I only have to see them once, maybe two more times. They're two great players."
The Bears led by 13 early in the second half but the Trojans chipped away and crept back in. After Alexis Gray-Lawson's pull-up jumper gave Cal a 69-64 lead with 1:49 remaining, Camille LeNoir sank a 3-pointer to pull the Trojans within two.
Walker's driving layup made it 71-67 but Aarika Hughes scored for USC and Gilbreath followed with her steal of Walker's pass and then scored to tie the game, setting up Hampton's game-winning shot in the final seconds.
Cal, which hasn't lost since falling to then-No. 5 Oklahoma 86-75 on Dec. 13, moved 1 1/2 games ahead of Stanford atop the Pac-10 standings. The ninth-ranked Cardinal host UCLA on Sunday.
The Bears came out sluggish for the second straight game and had trouble shaking the pesky Trojans, who had lost the six previous meetings between the two schools. USC pushed Cal to overtime the last time the teams played at Haas Pavilion and nearly did it again before coming up short.
Cal led 46-33 early in the second half and were ahead 55-48 on Hampton's basket with 11:50 remaining but the Trojans wouldn't go away quietly. LeNoir's 3-pointer pulled the Trojans within 58-56 and Parker later followed a Bears miss with a score to make it 67-64 with 2:54 remaining.
"We've been tired and I knew we just needed to get through this weekend and just get a day or two where you get to mentally rest," Boyle said. "To be able to gut check this game out, I'll take it."
Cal's 10-game winning streak matches the school record set in 1981-82 and matched in 1986-87.
USC trailed by 10 late in the first half went on a short run and pulled within 34-31 on Gilbreath's baseline jumper with 4:26 remaining. Vital scored five straight points and Walker added a 3-pointer and scored off an offensive rebound to help Cal pull away and take a 44-33 halftime lead. Vital had 12 points for the Bears.
The Bears look to extended their win streak next weekend when they head to the state of Washington, playing the Washington Huskies on Friday night, Feb. 6, in Seattle followed by a Sunday afternoon game on Feb. 8 in Pullman against the Washington State Cougars.