After UCLA's fourth win in a row at USC, the team high-fived fans overhanging the tunnel and stepped into the locker room. On the
whiteboard, Bryce Alford grabbed a pen and wrote.
"Mission Complete," the message said. After tension had built and confidence plunged during a five-game losing streak, UCLA Coach Steve Alford set a new goal: three wins in the next nine-day stretch. On Wednesday, UCLA got win No. 3, by a comfortable 83-66 score.
"We finally went to the road with a little bit of our swagger back," the coach said afterward.
USC was also searching for some confidence. Nonconference play had been, at times, promising and frustrating. But to start Pac-12 Conference play, USC had won just one of four.
For each team, a win against the crosstown rival alone wouldn't be enough to correct the season's trajectory. But it would be a start.
UCLA (11-7, 3-2 in the Pac-12) has now risen above .500 in the conference for the first time this year. For the moment, the Bruins have answered growing concern over the season's direction.
"Being at UCLA, with all the tradition and the winning that goes here, people are going to be upset when we're not winning and keeping that tradition alive," guard Norman Powell said.
A loss against the improving but still overmatched Trojans would've reignited doubt. And for most of the first half, USC stayed close, until an eight-point run to end the half gave UCLA a five-point lead.
Then, USC Coach Andy Enfield said, "Powell just took over the game."
Powell led a newly diversified offense that outscored the Trojans 15-2 to start the second half — 23-2 including the first-half run — to extend the lead to as much as 18. The Bruins again pounded the ball inside to Kevon Looney and Tony Parker, who contributed to 46 points in the paint. In a loss to Utah three games ago, UCLA didn't score that many points the entire game.
The inside-out game freed the guards, including Bryce Alford, who awakened after a dreadful shooting stretch to open conference play. At one point, he'd missed 19 shots in a row, and subsequent games were only marginally better. But in the second half against the Trojans, he couldn't miss. He finished with 21 points on eight-for-14 shooting.
"Oh my gosh," Alford said, exhaling. "It's been awhile."
Looney finished with another double-double; Powell led the team with 22 points.
"He's first-team all-league in my book," Enfield said of Powell.
Before the game, USC held a moment of silence for former coach Bob Boyd, who died Wednesday.
With a break in the schedule, the Trojans (9-8, 1-4) now have time to evaluate another sour start to the conference season. Nikola Jovanovic had success inside and finished with 20 points, but the Trojans were dominated on the boards, 41-20. They wrangled just four offensive rebounds.
Jordan McLaughlin, a prized point-guard recruit from Etiwanda who'd been pursued by both teams, wasn't much of a factor, with eight points and six assists.
After the game, sophomore forward Darion Clark was clear: USC must be tougher.
"Eventually we're going to have to wake up," Clark said, "or this will keep happening."
Against UCLA recently, it has happened over and over. Powell became the Bruins' first four-game winner at USC since Toby Bailey in 1998. Not since 1995 through 1999 has UCLA won this many games in a row at USC.
At Oregon State, Jan. 22, 6 p.m. at Gill Coliseum, Corvallis, Ore., Pac-12 Networks.
The Beavers have been the early surprise of conference play after upsetting Arizona on Sunday.
At Oregon, Jan. 22, 8 p.m. at Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, Ore., Pac-12 Networks.
Like their football team, the Ducks' basketball team scores in bunches — they lead the Pac-12 at 76.5 points a game.