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Jeff Eisenberg

Fourth straight loss to rival USC 'a slap in the face' for UCLA

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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LOS ANGELES -- Forty seconds remained in USC's 63-52 win over UCLA on Sunday night when the Trojans began celebrating a fourth straight victory against their crosstown rival.

As USC's yellow-clad student section stood and roared and a "We Are SC" chant rained down from the Galen Center rafters, the five Trojans on the court exchanged high fives while they dribbled out the clock near mid-court.

"When the other team starts to celebrate with 40 seconds left, that's just kind of a slap in the face," UCLA center Joshua Smith said. "Don't get me wrong. They won fair and square. Nothing against them. But with 40 seconds left, you just let the clock run out, shake our hands and go celebrate in the locker room."

It's understandable that the Bruins took offense at the Trojans rubbing the loss in their faces, but UCLA probably would have benefited from tapping into some of that anger a little earlier in the evening. The Bruins appeared to lack the urgency or desperation you'd expect in a rivalry game, especially considering they entered the game having lost three straight to the basketball lightweight across town that ex-UCLA star J.R. Henderson once belittlingly referred to as "just SC."

Energized by a rare enthusiastic sellout crowd that included only a few pockets of blue and gold, USC stormed back from a two-point halftime deficit behind 20 points from forward Nikola Vucevic, and 13 points and 16 boards from center Alex Stepheson. The Trojans forced 17 UCLA turnovers, held a 34-28 rebounding edge and limited the Bruins to 7-for-27 second-half shooting, capturing a fourth win in a row over UCLA for the first time since the 2003-04 season.

"This win means everything to us," Stepheson said. "Being from L.A., I know the rivalry. It's bragging rights. The whole city is watching."

If the rivalry didn't inspire a determined effort from the Bruins, the stakes of the game alone should have been enough. Both UCLA and USC entered Sunday night's matchup 1-1 in the Pac-10, meaning the Bruins are now 2½ games behind conference favorite Washington heading into a two-game road swing in Oregon next week.

There were a myriad of reasons for UCLA's second-half offensive woes.

A fatigued Reeves Nelson lacked the energy he had while scoring 12 first-half points. Neither shooting guard Malcolm Lee nor point guard Lazeric Jones could find his range, missing a combined 11 of 12 shots. And USC defensive stopper Marcus Simmons shackled UCLA forward Tyler Honeycutt, limiting him to 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting.

More than anything, however, UCLA missed the interior presence of Smith, who played only 22 minutes after picking up his second and third fouls in the opening 80 seconds of the second half and then getting No. 4 bumping Vucevic on the perimeter with 13:40 to go. Smith fouled out in the final minute with eight points and three boards, bemoaning a couple of the second-half calls that went against him after the game.

"The refs are honestly terrible," Smith said. "The one where I fell and Vucevic fell on me, the ref said, ‘I had to call that.' They're telling me this, this and this, but really, I'm a guy who will own up when I foul."

After the Bruins endured the traditional "just like football" chant from the USC crowd and watched their crosstown rivals celebrate at mid-court, UCLA coach Ben Howland kept them in the locker room for more than 20 minutes after the game.

Howland had calmed down by the time he emerged, box score in hand, to relive the loss with reporters, but the UCLA players were still plenty dejected.

"This was the toughest loss of the season by far," UCLA forward Brendan Lane said. "Next time playing at home, we've got to represent on our home court and get a win. We've just got to stop this streak."

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