Epic collapse, or colossal comeback?
Depends on your affiliation.
“It was more us falling apart,” said USC freshman swingman Nick Young.
Countered UCLA freshman shooting guard Arron Afflalo: “We needed a huge effort in the second half and ... it was up to us and I knew we could do it.”
USC freshman point guard Gabe Pruitt disagreed.
“It was on us [because] like I’ve said every game this year, we’re a great team and we can beat anybody the first 25-30 minutes ... then we break down,” he said.
Pruitt’s UCLA counterpart Jordan Farmar said, “The second half was about heart; we played with a lot of heart.”
Indeed, UCLA’s 72-69 defeat of USC Saturday at the Sports Arena did more than save the Bruins’ season -- especially after the Trojans took a 43-25 lead into halftime -- it may have sent USC into an inescapable hole.
Because while the Bruins ended the Trojans’ four-game winning streak in the rivalry to improve to 11-6 overall and 5-4 in the Pacific 10 Conference at the league’s halfway mark, last-place USC fell to 9-11 and 2-7 and will need a major rally simply to qualify for the eight-team Pac-10 tournament.
Such was the Trojans’ lot when they got away from what had been so successful for them in the game’s first 20 minutes.
USC sophomore guard Lodrick Stewart took major heat from the Trojan coaching staff earlier in the week when he divulged his team’s strategy -- speed up the Bruins by pressing them on the inbound before slowing things down and settling into a 2-3 zone defense.
But even though UCLA knew it was coming, the Bruins could do nothing about it, shooting a miserable 27.3% from the field in the first half, 22.2% from beyond the three-point arc.
Plus, Young and Pruitt were busy showing up their more highly touted UCLA classmates -- Farmer, Afflalo, Josh Shipp and Lorenzo Mata -- running the Bruins ragged and stunning the crowd of 7,767.
Young led the Trojans with a career high-tying 22 points, though he did not score in the last 15-plus minutes.
USC shot 53.1% from the field in the first half, which the Trojans closed with a 17-4 run in the last 3:47.
“We celebrated a little early,” said Pruitt, who finished with 19 points, three assists and three steals in 31 minutes.
Then came the second half.
The Trojans, sensing a fifth consecutive victory in the rivalry, came out flat and abandoned their pressing and zoning defense. And they suddenly forgot how to handle the ball, committing 10 turnovers against a no-frills man-to-man defense while shooting 36.7% after halftime.
UCLA, meanwhile, made 57.1% of its second-half shots, 75% of its three-pointers and came back as it did in victories against Washington, when it came from 21 points down, and Washington State, when it trailed by 17.
“It’s just amazing that you have your cross-town rivals on the ropes and you don’t play hard in the second half,” said USC interim Coach Jim Saia.
UCLA took full advantage and senior forward Dijon Thompson spurred the Bruins on a 31-11 run to open the second half, his basket at the 8:10 mark giving UCLA its first lead, 56-54.
“If we played to our capability, I knew we could come back,” said Thompson, who had a game-high 24 points, 16 coming in the second half.
A Derrick Craven three-point play put USC ahead again before a wide-open Afflalo made a pair of three-point baskets from the right wing to give UCLA a five-point cushion, 62-57, with just over seven minutes left.
Pruitt, who had been on the bench since the 10:47 mark, when USC led, 54-47, re-entered with 7:17 to play and promptly made his presence felt, making a pair of three-pointers and the Trojans held a 65-63 advantage with 3:43 to play.
Later, Pruitt had a steal with a chance to add to USC’s lead, but he could not convert a layup. Instead, Farmar was breaking away on the other end, until Stewart committed an ill-advised intentional foul by grabbing Farmar’s jersey.
“I didn’t try to intentionally foul him,” Stewart said, “it was just one of those plays.”
Farmar converted both free throws and Thompson scored on the ensuing possession.
USC senior power forward Jeff McMillan tied the score, 69-69, with 2:16 to go, but it was the last basket the Trojans would score, McMillan turning the ball over in the post with less than a minute left.
And after Thompson missed the second attempt of a one-and-one opportunity with 16.3 seconds to play, Young’s three-point attempt to tie the score from deep on the right wing was just short.
“Oh, man, it looked like it was good,” Young said.
“We were tired and we made key mistakes down the stretch and [the Bruins] were able to come back. That’s what they do. They did it to Washington and they did it to us.”
UCLA ended its three-game losing streak in the process.
“We got a huge gut check for us to come back on the road,” said UCLA Coach Ben Howland. “We needed this.”
As did the Trojans. As in they needed a victory.
“We’re a good basketball team,” Saia said. “We just don’t know how to win.”