Shotgun Spratling | USCfootball.com

Welcome to the big time

For USC basketball, the Trojans' fourth straight win in the Crosstown Rivalry should be a start, not the finish, the beginning of better things to come for this program.

Now that was some kind of fun.

But not just USC's fourth straight win over its college basketball royalty rival across town, as impressive as that was. It's not even the point. This should be about more than one game -- or even the last four USC wins against the Bruins now.

Although you can't really ignore the actuality of USC's 84-76 Galen Center win and what it could mean as this goes on for Andy Enfield's tenure.

Listen to those who cover UCLA as they described USC as the tougher-minded, smarter, sticking-to-their-game plan, disciplined and defensive-minded team that showed up some of the highly touted one-and-done Bruins who were barely slowing down in Westwood this season on their journey to the NBA.

How, indeed, did this happen? How did this USC team, without its best player in Bennie Boatwright, out for 18 games now, and without injured grad student transfer Charles Buggs, its only upperclassman "big," pull this off?

How did UCLA fans come away asking what happened to the "must-see TV" Bruin team that took Kentucky to the woodshed in Rupp Arena earlier?

How did "USC have all the athletes?" one UCLA fan wondered.

And leaving the Bruins with not having beaten USC even once in football or basketball for the last 685 days. How did that happen?

How indeed?

USC did it with a single-minded stick-to-itive-ness to a smart game plan that was later explained by top assistant Tony Bland just the way he'd told the Trojans it would work. They'd charted UCLA and realized just how much of the Bruins' offense had been generated by their three-point game. So when they went to their 3-2 zone after getting outmanned in their opening man-to-man defense, USC hedged on the three-point shooters like Lonzo Ball and simply denied them many open looks.

The result? A Bruin team averaging more than 93 points, second in the nation, and fifth in the nation with 16.4 three-pointers a game, scored 17 below that and hit on just six of 20 behind the arc.

That was the obvious difference. But more than that, UCLA found itself having to adjust to USC's outside ball pressure. With not many good looks outside, the Bruins were forced to drive against a USC team that was playing "a 6-foot-3 power forward" in freshman De'Anthony Melton, as Enfield said later.

Drive and dish from the superstar point guard Ball to his fellow freshman inside, T.J. Leaf, seemed like a plan. Except for USC defenders with their long arms, quick hands and total attention to the game plan taking it away.

One team in this game was completely willing to play defense. The other . . . not so much. Seven Ball turnovers led the way as UCLA had 17 to USC's nine.

"Stolen possessions" Andy called them. "Fewer turnovers, more steals." That's the math.

Down 8-0 after the first 2:44, USC threw up a 50-30 run to intermission and but for one little blip in the second half that allowed UCLA within four points, this one was over. The athletes won. The disciplined defenders won.

"We listened to our coaches," Chimezie Metu said. "We knew we were going to be able to get thos shots we wanted. Our task was t stop them." 

"Who are those guys?" both USC and UCLA fans were asking -- correctly.

They were the guys USC fans had been hoping for. Not many of them right now "but we have good players," Enfield noted. Don't downplay that. You don't do this without talent.

On this night, USC coached and played to that talent.

That's all it took. USC was the puncher, not the punchee. USC was the tough guy in this matchup, the team that took UCLA's best shot and gave it back big time to improve to 18-4 and get back above .500 at 5-4 in the Pac-12 and solidify its place in the NCAA bracket.

But that gets us what was really big time and what USC fans -- and this team with its play -- must replicate. That was big time fun.

That's the way college basketball should be. That's the way it is in lots of places. That's what a sold-out house of 10,258 can do for a team. "The crowd was great tonight," Metu said. "I wish it was like that every game."

Here's a prediction. If USC plays like that every night, there's a lot better chance this crowd will be like that as well -- and vice versa. One plays off the other.

And we know, as one longtime USC football fan said, he was "here to see UCLA get beat," more than to see USC win. Basketball hasn't gotten there yet.

But it's getting there. As we saw when we were getting here. The crowds on the streets around Galen, the parking garages "FULL" more than an hour before tipoff, the buzz at places like The Lab Gastropub, the scalpers -- lots of scalpers -- the ticket-trading activity in the lobby of the Radisson. It was all giving us flashbacks of pre-game Rupp Arena, and the adjoining Hyatt in Lexington.

Or Cincinnati for a Xavier-UC game. Or at Indiana when Kentucky was in town. Or a Big Five game at the Palestra, or big rivalry games at Purdue or Notre Dame, all teams we've been fortunate in our career to cover.

This had that feel. And to our surprise, there weren't as many UCLA fans in the sold-out house as we'd thought there might be.

"As good a big-time atmosphere as I've ever seen," Andy said. And he wasn't outside to see all the activity there. But inside, this was fun. And the crowd got it. The noise level was as high or higher for a big defensive play as for those Metu and Elijah Stewart folo-slams.

But again, it's just one game. What happens at Washington and Washington State next week matters just as much. Same for when the Oregons come to town the week after that. And sure, there's that three-game road swing to UCLA and the Arizona schools that will be challenging as heck, even with Boatwright back.

Was this Andy's biggest win in his four years here? He wouldn't go there. But we will.

It was. The way these coaches and players worked together, believed together, took it to a favored UCLA, stuck to their game plan and didn't let anything get them off their game was remarkable. It's what good teams -- good programs -- do.

Good fans, too.

It's what happened here Wednesday night. And what has to happen again and again.

We're thinking most of these fans might just be back. Although some of that is up to this team and what they do next week in Washington. If they play like they did Wednesday, the fans will be back here.

And not just to beat the Bruins.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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