LOS ANGELES — Dwight Lewis pumped his fists and smirked after a key layup. Marcus Johnson nodded his head and grinned after a game-clinching fast-break slam.
In a basketball season rendered largely meaningless for USC as a result of its self-imposed postseason ban, the Trojans savored an accomplishment they insist makes their effort feel worthwhile. They finished off their first sweep of crosstown rival UCLA since the 2003-04 season with a gritty 68-64 victory on Sunday, a satisfying reward for not quitting under circumstances where others might have.
"From the time I sat in an interview with Mike Garrett, I understood how important it is to beat UCLA," USC coach Kevin O'Neill said. "It means a lot. I don't care if it's basketball, volleyball, swimming or football. I know it's an important game, and we approached it as an important game."
To understand what a rare accomplishment this is for USC basketball, consider these stats for a moment. Not only did this mark the Trojans' first home victory in the series since the Galen Center opened in 2005, Ben Howland also became the first UCLA coach since the John Wooden era to lose three straight games to the Trojans.
Unless your an ardent UCLA fan with an axe to grind, you can't help but feel good for the USC players who are being punished for a past crime they had nothing to do with. The sanctions are in response to allegations that former basketball star O.J. Mayo received improper cash and gifts – and neither he nor the coaching staff who recruited him have set foot in the Galen Center this year.
"In my eyes, we're being punished for something we didn't do," junior Alex Stepheson said matter of factly. "It's not fair, but the system is what it is. It's unfortunate and it's frustrating, but that's what happened. All we can do is keep playing."
USC did just that on Sunday despite a 46-25 deficit on the glass, proof that rebounding is one of the most misleading stats in sports. Maybe the only reason the Bruins owned that advantage is because they turned the ball over so many times against USC's relentless defensive pressure that there weren't that many defensive rebounds to be had.
UCLA committed 20 turnovers, six alone by Malcolm Lee, the shooting guard forced to play point guard as a result of previous starter Jerime Anderson's season-long struggles. Those turnovers fueled a 14-4 second-half USC run that turned a 38-35 deficit into a 49-42 lead that the Trojans never relinquished in the final 10 minutes.
When the Trojans learned the NCAA tournament was not an attainable goal this season, they immediately set a new objective of winning the Pac-10 regular season title. It's certainly a long shot, but they remain just a game behind first-place Cal in the loss column heading into road games at Washington and Washington State.
"Of course, we wish we could go to the postseason, but we don't have that," Lewis said. "We've got a good resilient team. We know we still have a chance at the regular-season title."