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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

USC comes up ‘big’ against cross-town rivals UCLA

Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson lead the Trojans to a home win over UCLA.

Before the 2011 school year, the U.S. News & World Report’s academic ratings ranked USC 23rd and UCLA 25th, marking the first time USC placed ahead of UCLA academically. Combine this with USC’s continued dominance in football over their cross- town foes (even in a “down” year such as 2010), and it seemed UCLA was due for a victory over USC.

Sunday night, UCLA’s wait for a major victory over the Trojans continued, as the home team out-executed and out-hustled the Bruins in a 63-52 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 10,258 at the Galen Center.

Since the Galen Center’s opening in 2006, the men’s basketball team had drawn just three sellouts, all losses. This time though, they would not be denied their first sellout victory. USC has now won four straight games against the Bruins, and three straight under head coach Kevin O’Neill.

Despite facing one of the biggest frontcourts they have seen all season, featuring the likes of 6-10, 305 lb. big man Josh Smith, USC’s twin towers were ultimately the deciding factor in the game. Nikola Vucevic scored 20 points on 9-16 shooting and Alex Stephenson added 13 points and 16 rebounds, giving the Trojans two post presences down low against UCLA’s platoon of big men. UCLA’s Reeves Nelson had a good game with 14 points and 8 rebounds, while Josh Smith was held to only 8 points and 3 rebounds in 22 minutes due to foul trouble.

USC senior Marcus Simmons drew the tough task of guarding UCLA’s projected lottery pick Tyler Honeycutt, yet Simmons once again shut down the opposing team’s best player. Much like his performance on Texas’ Jordan Hamilton, he forced Honeycutt into 7 turnovers and only 10 points on 3-10 shooting. USC’s guard trio of Maurice Jones, Donte Smith and Bryce Jones managed to hold UCLA’s starting backcourt of Malcolm Lee and Lazeric Jones to just 7 points of 1-12 shooting.

The Bruins led 30-28 at the half, a disappointing score for the Trojans after leading for most of the first half. In the second half, the Trojans clamped down defensively, holding the Bruins to only 22 points for the half and 52 points overall (39.6% shooting), a season low.

But it was not a perfect night for the Trojans. They still struggled from the free-throw line, going 8-16 (50%), and did not shoot well behind the three-point line (31.3%). The bench also only put up a meager eight points for the night.

The Trojans (10-6 overall, 2-1 in Pac-10) now have impressive victories of Texas, Tennessee and UCLA, along with close losses to top teams such as Kansas and Washington. They appear to be a dark horse in the Pac-10 championship race and look like a team possibly headed to an NCAA Tournament berth. They may not be perfect, but the Trojans have shown that they are an up-and-coming team capable of beating anybody on any given night through their defense and rebounding. Just ask their cross-town rivals.

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