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UCLA exercises catharsis to reclaim LA for now

UCLA lets out two years of frustrating losses on the crosstown rival to win a 5th straight game overall.

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at UCLA
Thomas Welsh asked the Pauley Pavilion crowd to bring it like he did against USC.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

709 days.

That is approximately 1.93 years and exactly how far back UCLA’s winless streak over USC in football and men’s basketball stretched from March 12, 2015 until UCLA’s 102-70 demolition on Saturday night.

We can discuss the football at a later time (how about never?). Unfortunately, UCLA takes its lumps to USC on the gridiron more often than not.

But the last four games against USC on the hardwood were tougher pills to swallow.

Andy Enfield’s team, littered with local talent that UCLA missed on like Chimezie Metu, Jordan McLaughlin and Bennie Boatwright, molly-whopped UCLA by an average margin of 16.5 points in its four consecutive wins. Last month, USC won 84-76, a scoreline that flattered UCLA and could not totally quantify the Bruins’ disjointed and dispirited effort.

After beating Andy Enfield the first 5 times after he took over USC, Enfield had quickly become a stick in Steve Alford’s craw.

So forgive Alford a little bit for leaving the starters in just a little longer, well after the game was won. His team played outstanding basketball in front of a sold out Pauley Pavilion.

UCLA’s defense, which has fueled the current five game winning streak, swarmed all over the floor after a slow start in which USC held a 23-18 lead after 12 minutes. The Bruins then went on an 18-3 barrage over 5 minutes and went into halftime up 12.

UCLA maintained that 12 point lead into the final 7 minutes. They then finished in a 29-9 flurry and let it all hang out en route to an emphatic 32 point win.

The Bruins’ second half defense shut out the Trojans entirely, returning the favor USC’s defense doled out last month. USC only made 10 shots and two 3 pointers in the second half and looked helpless against UCLA’s frenetic defense. Bennie Boatwright did score 20 points, but 8 came on free throws and he only had 4 dinghy field goals.

Chimezie Metu was the only other Trojan to score more than 10 points.

Two Bruins deserve special recognition for their defense. Bryce Alford’s dogged effort and hard work on each possession was laudable. His infectious energy spilled onto his teammates when he hounded USC’s perimeter, even when he got beat off the dribble.

The other is Thomas Welsh. Welsh is not the biggest or bulkiest UCLA big (that would be Ike Anigbogu), but he played large on Saturday, hauling in 16 rebounds to match his 16 points. Fourteen of those rebounds came on defense and sparked UCLA’s transition offense time and time again.

Overall, USC shot just 33% from the field. It was the Trojans’ second worst shooting performance of the season since Oregon drubbed them in Eugene on the first weekend of Pac-12 play in December.

UCLA also blocked 6 Trojan shots, including Welsh sending Metu back to University Park.

Meanwhile, UCLA’s offense was predictably excellent. All 5 starters scored in double figures, made at least 6 field goals and shot 50% or better from the field.

I may read as being bored by that offensive performance, but I have come to expect an excellent UCLA offense in each game. It is a fair assumption to make when the Bruins now lead the country in points per game (92.3), field goal percentage (53%), 3 point percentage (42%) and assists per game (nearly 22).

It is also fair because UCLA hit at or just over their season averages in shooting (53%) and assists (23), and they put up 100 points against a team that stymied them a month ago.

Ho hum.

Bryce Alford led the way with 26 points on 5-9 shooting from distance. He also tossed 6 assists and hounded on defense and played his most complete game of the season. TJ Leaf scored 19 points of his own and also hit two threes in transition. When Leaf has his 3 point stroke, he is nearly unguardable, even for springy athletes like Boatwright and Metu.

Lonzo Ball messed around and nearly got a triple double, finishing 2 assists and 2 rebounds shy to go along with his 15 points. Thomas Welsh made 8 baskets on 10 attempts and missed just one baseline jumper.

Ike Anigbogu missed all 5 of his shots, including a putback jam and two layups. But he more than made up for it with 6 offensive rebounds, 5 of which were cashed in for points. His offensive development will be fun to watch into next season as he continues to mature (remember, he just turned 18!).

UCLA collected 15 offensive rebounds and 50 total rebounds and had more defensive rebounds (35) than the Trojans had overall (33).

The Trojans were lead-footed against Bruins’ rocket-fueled motion and slick passing, and their zone, which gave UCLA fits in January, was eviscerated on Saturday night. UCLA committed just 10 turnovers, and only 5 against the zone.

In all, it was a total butt kicking. Even G.G. Goloman got in on the fun and did THIS.

The Arizona road trip now looms large like desert shadows.

On Thursday, UCLA takes on Arizona State, a struggling outfit that can score in bunches just like the Bruins. UCLA will need to lock in on defense and avoid looking ahead to Saturday’s rematch against Arizona.

The Bruins face long odds to win the Pac-12 title outright. They trail Arizona by one loss and need to win out to have any chance at any portion of the title (Arizona would also need to lose again). They also need to bring the defense of the last 5 games with them to the desert as opposed to the one that the Wildcats shredded last month.

The McKale Center will be rollicking and arguably the most hostile environment UCLA has faced this season, even more so than Eugene or Lexington.

How fitting that the noise will be cranked up just as the regular season reaches its crescendo.