LAS VEGAS — For the first time since 2014, the Bruins will have a shot to win the Pac-12 crown.
no. 2 seed UCLA men’s basketball (25-6, 15-5 Pac-12) won the rubber match against crosstown rival No. 3 seed USC (26-7, 14-6) on Friday night, beating the Trojans 69-59 in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. The Bruins didn’t trail after the opening seven minutes, controlling the game and refusing to flirt with blowing the lead like they did at Pauley Pavilion six days earlier.
UCLA saw its double-digit lead get cut to two that night, and although they emerged with their first win over USC since 2019, coach Mick Cronin was notably upset with how his team closed things out. In the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals, the Bruins won by 10 despite leading by 20 heading into the final minute.
Those late-game woes were nowhere to be found Friday, and UCLA wound up winning the season series with USC for the first time since 2018 in the process.
The Trojans had two ways of scoring early on – through 15 minutes, their only points came off of Isaiah Mobley layups and 3-pointers. They even missed their first four free throws of the night.
Center Myles Johnson got the start for the Bruins, and he was disruptive from the get go. Johnson’s deflections in the paint helped UCLA force six turnovers in the first half, and he helped hold USC to 2-of-9 shooting on layups in the opening frame.
There were four lead-changes and four ties in the first 10-plus minutes of the game, though, as neither team could create any kind of real separation.
A 3-pointer by guard Tyger Campbell was followed up by six consecutive free throws for the Bruins, finally giving them a multi-possession advantage. Guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. hit his second of three turnaround baseline fadeaways and Campbell drained another triple to make it a 16-5 run for UCLA.
Seven of the next nine points scored by either team came from the free throw line, with the refs calling more and more fouls as halftime approached. Turnovers, missed opportunities and calls that went against the Bruins let the Trojans back into it before the break, as UCLA led 36-28 when the two sides headed into the locker room.
The fouls and Jaquez-reliance continued into the second half, with the Camarillo native scoring the Bruins’ first four points of the frame while the Trojans cut the deficit down to four.
UCLA built its advantage back into double digits behind guard/forward Peyton Watson, who didn’t even take the court for a single minute when USC came to Pauley Pavilion on March 5.
Watson corralled a loose ball and lobbed it to Johnson for an alley-oop, and he got a layup on the next offensive possession. A minute later, the 17.9% 3-point shooter nailed one from several feet behind the arc and a hand in his face, putting the Bruins up 49-38.
After a Jaquez layup made it an 11-point gap again, coach Andy Enfield called a timeout to get things under control. Seven points in a row from guard Boogie Ellis followed that break, bringing the Trojans within six. Guard Johnny Juzang, UCLA’s leading scorer on the season who had fallen off since suffering an ankle injury Feb. 24, finally got in on the action with a jumper, then a kick out to guard Jules Bernard for a 3-pointer helped stave off USC for the time being.
Ellis wasn’t done digging his team out of the hole, though, hitting a straightaway 3-pointer over forward Cody Riley to bring the gap back to six.
Bernard sliced across the lane for a contact layup, then hit a pair of free throws to put UCLA up by eight with 4:30 left on the clock. Juzang hit a layup to make it a 12-point contest, all but ending the third rivalry showdown of the year.
USC got four free throws to fall as garbage time was getting started, but it was all for naught as UCLA walked down the tunnel after a double-digit win, egging on its student section across the arena.
It was walk-on guard Russell Stong who had the honor of slapping the “UCLA” sticker onto the official bracket, setting up a rematch with Arizona on the Pac-12 championship game on Saturday night.
Four Bruins finished in double figures, led by Jaquez’s 19.
The Bruins and Wildcats split their two meetings this season, and the rubber match will tip off at 6 pm at T-Mobile Center with the conference title officially on the line.
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