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Despite victory, Bruins fans still have their clocks set to ’13-9'

Beating anyone in February, even a hated rival, doesn’t mean that much in basketball.

If you’re talking hoops, the conversation really starts in March, so the most relevant part of UCLA’s 70-65 victory over USC is that Darren Collison played a big part in it.

Point guards are essential to a team’s NCAA tournament hopes and, after a shaky start, Collison, who led the Bruins with 17 points, looked ready to take on the responsibility.

This game was an indication, not a season definition like the annual football meeting.

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UCLA Coach Ben Howland and his players talked up the rivalry -- and it was a lively atmosphere at Pauley Pavilion Wednesday night -- but the contrast between the value of these regular-season games was hammered home by the ongoing blissful state of Bruindom over the football team’s victory over USC. It doesn’t matter that UCLA lost its bowl game against Florida State. The 7-6 record doesn’t put a damper on the spirit, either. And it didn’t matter that the Bruins trailed USC throughout the first half Wednesday night.

During the first timeout they rang the Victory Bell awarded to the football game winner, and that drew a standing ovation.

In later timeouts the big screen showed handwritten signs and pre-printed towels that said “UCLA 13 USC 9" -- the score people in Westwood remember the way people in Texas remember the Alamo.

Basketball doesn’t have that effect. Do you think that their loss to USC in February weighed on the Bruins’ minds when they played in the NCAA championship game in April?

But maybe, when people fill out their brackets this March, they’ll remember Collison’s play here.

At first he couldn’t get the Bruins started against USC’s 2-3 zone. General ineffectiveness and an early turnover led Howland to pull him 3:40 into the game.

“We just wanted to get him settled down,” Howland said. “I think he was so amped up.”

Replacement Russell Westbrook showed Collison how to do it, taking advantage of USC’s emphasis on the wing players to get into the lane for a jumper, then a pass to Alfred Aboya for a layup the next time down the court.

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Collison returned and started the Bruins back from a 20-12 deficit with a bounce pass to Lorenzo Mata for a layup.

He added a three-pointer, a jump shot and a couple of baskets in the paint ... and he wasn’t too far off on a half-court try at the buzzer that could have given UCLA a halftime lead.

USC was the superior team in the early part of the game, more aggressive on defense and getting better shots on offense. The Trojans drove to the hoop at will, helping them to shoot 50% and take a 30-29 lead into halftime. Their defense held Josh Shipp without a point for almost 34 minutes and limited Arron Afflalo to 16 points. They contested everything, sometimes too closely, because the Bruins shot 31 free throws to USC’s five.

But the Trojans didn’t make the plays when the pressure mounted. Gabe Pruitt lost control of the ball against a double-team, Collison stole it and passed ahead to Afflalo for a breakaway dunk that gave UCLA its first lead, with less than six minutes left. Later, Lodrick Stewart lost control of his emotions.

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After Shipp grabbed two of his own missed shots and finally made a layup plus a foul, Stewart grabbed the ball and slammed it to the ground. He was called for a technical foul. It was a bad ‘T’ since Stewart was more frustrated by the play than the call. Still, Stewart should not have put the officials in that position. UCLA got two bonus points from the technical free throws, plus Shipp made his free throw to complete the three-point play. UCLA didn’t surrender the lead.

“We’re used to winning,” Afflalo said.

The Trojans are learning to win.

Howland called USC “a team that other teams in other conferences do not want to be playing come NCAA tournament time.”

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But will the Trojans have presence? Will they command respect when they walk in the building?

We got a quick lesson in the power of presence in the second half, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his security detail went three-fourths of the way around the court and sat down next to his wife, Maria Shriver. Fans cheered every step, and the courtside photographers went into paparazzi mode, snapping pictures. They showed him on the scoreboard screen, and there was a large ovation.

During a timeout midway through the second half, former Gov. Gray Davis walked over to where Arnold was sitting and shook his hand. Not a ripple from the fans. The telephoto lenses didn’t budge. Repeat, this was the former governor of the state of California. Finally, one photographer noticed what was going on, took a few pictures, and the rest joined in. Still no buzz in the crowd, and no face time on the giant video screen for Davis.

He’s forgotten like a bad pilot episode. Meanwhile, UCLA fans still haven’t forgotten what happened on Dec. 2.

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In the final seconds, they chanted “Just like football.”

The good news for USC is it pulled in what some call the nation’s best recruiting class on Wednesday, the national letter of intent signing day.

In football, what happens in February matters.


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