If you're looking for a rivalry grudge match, that's what you got at the Staples Center Friday, as UCLA beat USC in the semi-final of the Pac-10 Tournament, 57-54.
As Rob Carpentier said in the game's preview, the deciding factor would be which team wanted to win the game more. The two teams both have advantages and mis-matches, which makes the two very close in capability.
It was pretty simple: USC wanted it more in the first half, so they led at halftime, 34-28.
Then, UCLA came out in the second half invigorated and intense, and went on a 12-0 run, to go up 40-34.
USC had just 4 turnovers in the entire first half, but then had three in the first three minutes of the second half, basically forced by UCLA's intensified defense.
Again, it's all about defense and rebounding, and when UCLA does it with intensity and focus, there aren't too many teams in the country that can keep up.
The problem is UCLA goes through some considerable lulls where it doesn't do it with intensity and focus.
UCLA, befuddled by USC's shifting defense -- from a man, to a two-three zone, to a triangle-and-two – went into a bad offensive lull through the middle of the first half. For 6 ½ minutes, UCLA shot 2 of 10, and got out-scored by USC 13-4. The Bruins were playing rushed on offense, taking poor shots, and slow and absent-minded on defense, allowing USC easy drives and lay-ups.
Really, as Russell Westbrook goes, so goes UCLA. He played horrendously in the first half, shooting 2 for 9 (and one of the made shots was an off-balance prayer after he had over-penetrated), 0 for 3 from three, while allowing his nemesis, USC's O.J. Mayo to score 8 points. Westbrook was wound up, over-penetrating a number of times on offense, and over-played Mayo on the perimeter to allow him a step to go around him.
But, then, in the second half, Westbrook had a miraculous turnaround. He shot 3 for 5 in the second half, had three assists and, most importantly, shut down Mayo. USC's vaunted freshman went scoreless for the first 16 minutes of the second half, and you could see him clearly affected by Westbrook's relentess defense. On offense, Westbrook, along, of course, with Kevin Love, fueled the big UCLA run to start the half, making the first shot after the half, then tipping a rebound to Love for a dunk, and then following that with two more assists to Love over the next couple of minutes.
If Westbrook is on, if he's playing well offensively, not over-penetrating and under control, UCLA's offense usually is humming. If he's not, UCLA isn't. Westbrook is increasingly getting the ball in his hands as essentially the point guard in UCLA's half-court offense, and it's essential that he play smart and under control.
Love re-created what he did to start the second half against Cal offensively the night before. Against the Bears he started the second half with three threes, which helped to put away the game. Against USC, he started the half with two and-ones, converted both, and then hit a three-pointer, which is essentially the same as three three-pointers. In this one he also threw in a dunk – so he started with 11 quick points to lead UCLA's run.
Give credit to James Keefe, who provided the majority of the minutes that were open because of the loss of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to an ankle sprain. Keefe played solidly in the second half, providing good defense and hitting the boards, collecting four rebounds. We've maintained for a while that Keefe needs some minutes to get him comfortable and to play up to his capability. Now, with Mbah a Moute out for at least the Pac-10 Tournament final and probably the first-round NCAA Tournament game, here's Keefe's chance.
The toughness of UCLA, that never-say-die attitude, was epitomized by Darren Collison, shooting free throws with the game on the line. He had been poked in the eye and had blurry vision, but he nailed both free throws.
That's essentially what this game was -- USC poking UCLA in the eye -- and the Bruins showed they could take it. They rubbed it away, showed their mettle, recuperated, re-invigorated, and re-established control of the game, against a very good USC team that UCLA would only like to see again in the Final Four.