This post was updated March 3 at 10:44 p.m.
UCLA sure looked like a team that desperately wanted to state its case for the NCAA Tournament.
After falling behind by double digits, the Bruins went on an 11-0 run to pull ahead of USC. And with eight minutes left, a 12-2 run put UCLA (20-10, 11-7 Pac-12) ahead for good as it defeated the Trojans (21-10, 12-6) 83-72 on Saturday night.
“Our struggle this whole year has been playing defense, and tonight we showed we could get down and play defense,” said freshman guard Kris Wilkes. “I’m glad that we were able to do that and come out with the win.”
The Bruins held their opponents to a 32.3 shooting percentage from the field in the second half as they battled to overcome a halftime deficit.
“I thought we were doing a lot of good things; it was about just being a little more patient … with our offense,” said coach Steve Alford. “We knew they were going to mix their defenses – I thought we were struggling with that a little bit early, and we got in a pretty good rhythm to end the half, and I thought defensively, we settled down.”
Junior guard Aaron Holiday won the battle of the point guards against USC’s Jordan McLaughlin. Celebrating his senior night, McLaughlin put up 19 points – 14 more than he scored in the two teams’ previous meeting in early February. But he was no match for Holiday, who scored a career-high 34 points on 11-of-16 shooting.
Holiday also nailed six 3-pointers, part of a 48.1 percent night for the Bruins from beyond the arc.
“Tonight, I was just hitting,” Holiday said, who finished the regular season shooting 3-pointers at a 43.9 percent clip. “I’m just focused, that’s really all it is. I’m just glad I was hitting out there.”
Wilkes was the only other UCLA player who scored in double figures, as he recorded 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting. It capped a consistent season for Wilkes, who finished in double figures in all but two of the Bruins’ conference games.
And he did it after five stitches in his lip during halftime – a consequence of redshirt sophomore guard Prince Ali getting off the ground and inadvertently headbutting Wilkes.
“I feel like I have the ability to take over games,” Wilkes said. “I love to cut, that’s one of the best parts of my game, just cutting and getting open. … (My teammates) gave me the ability to do that and I thank them.”
The other member of Alford’s starting backcourt, freshman guard Jaylen Hands, sat out the game after spraining his ankle earlier this week. Ali started in Hands’ place, but was largely a nonfactor on the offensive end. Ali shot 1-of-9 from the field and only scored 2 points.
He wasn’t the only starter struggling offensively.
UCLA’s Thomas Welsh started 1-of-5 from the field, as USC forward Chimezie Metu largely outplayed the senior center, finishing with 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting. The Trojans scored 32 points in the paint, but only eight after halftime.
But the Bruins’ other starting big man, senior forward GG Goloman, sparked the team with his team-high four blocks.
UCLA shot 60 percent in the second half and 50.8 percent overall, completing the season sweep of its crosstown rivals and clinching a bye in next week’s Pac-12 Tournament.
“We were undermanned again,” Alford said. “I just thought all of our guys played really, really hard and I appreciate their effort. And now we get that bye that we were really looking forward to, and we get some momentum going into the Pac-12 Tournament.”