Bruins cling, clang, win
While his teammates dressed and met up with their families to eat and commiserate over USC’s sloppy 56-46 loss to UCLA on Sunday night, O.J. Mayo was taking a long, hot shower.
Hoping, no doubt, that the memory of his four-point, 10-turnover performance for the Trojans would vanish down the drain with the soapsuds and sweat.
For the first time in what has been an outstanding freshman season, Mayo didn’t hit double figures in points.
His streak of 23 consecutive double-figure games to start a career stands as a school record, but that meant nothing to him in the silence of the losing locker room at a quickly emptying Galen Center.
When he emerged, clean if somewhat soggy, Mayo was somber.
Mayo, who had been averaging 20.2 points, knew that the Trojans could have won this game, that although he wasn’t scoring, his team managed to stay close for much of the second half against the workmanlike but lackluster Bruins.
He took the loss hard.
But he took it like the man he physically appears to be, not the first-year player he is.
Mayo declined to use as an excuse the groin pull he suffered last week, saying it didn’t really matter even though it clearly limited his mobility.
Having to play the full 40 minutes couldn’t have helped -- three of his turnovers occurred in the last four minutes, with the Bruins still within reach -- but Mayo wasn’t taking the easy way out.
“I don’t think my groin had anything to do with my decisions with the ball,” said Mayo, who missed six shots and scored his only points on a dunk with 1 minute 43 seconds left in the first half and a jumper with 10:58 left in the second half.
He took responsibility for what was a team loss, a wasted chance for the Trojans (15-9, 6-6 in the Pacific 10 Conference) to sweep the season series from the Bruins (22-3, 10-2) and gather momentum for the last few regular-season games and the Pac-10 tournament.
He may or may not be ready for the NBA, but he was prepared to stand up and acknowledge his missteps Sunday.
That should be recognized in measuring the man separately from the player.
“I didn’t step up and play well and didn’t take care of the ball. I turned the ball over too many times,” he said.
“We had many opportunities, we just turned the ball over too much and I didn’t step up when my teammates needed me.”
Not that they blamed him.
“I kept telling him all game, ‘Keep your head up,’ ” said Taj Gibson, who tied Dwight Lewis for the Trojans’ scoring lead with 16 points apiece.
“O.J., he did well, even though people said he had a lot of turnovers. Every time we messed up, he was the first back on defense.”
Mayo also had to contend with a solid defensive effort against him by UCLA sophomore guard Russell Westbrook, who hounded him and gave him little room to operate.
In the teams’ first meeting this season, USC’s 72-63 upset victory, Mayo had scored 16 points. Westbrook never let him become a major factor Sunday.
“He played solid, didn’t gamble,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said of Westbrook’s effort. “Did a great job staying in front of him and contesting shots and trailing him wherever he went. And he had help from his teammates.”
Most of the dirty work, though, was done by Westbrook.
“O.J.'s a great player, one of the top players in the country,” Westbrook said. “That gives me a lot of defensive confidence.”
Mayo said the Bruins didn’t do anything special against him and insisted the game turned less on UCLA’s defense than his own mistakes.
“I think I played pretty good defense on myself with all the turnovers,” said Mayo, who had nine rebounds.
“It’s always going to be difficult when you have a player with 10 turnovers. I think that was the big story of the game.”
It made Mayo the big story because he had been so unflappable, so productive, so important night after night for a team with a thin bench and increasingly thin chances of making it to the NCAA tournament with any momentum -- or making it at all.
Sunday’s loss in itself didn’t knock the Trojans out. But a few more like it might.
Forward Davon Jefferson said he never sensed that Mayo was becoming so upset by his scoring woes that he became distracted, and that could be a good thing for a team needing every positive sign it can find.
“I don’t think he was frustrated,” Jefferson said. “Everybody’s human.”
“Everybody can’t get it going every night,” Jefferson said. “I don’t think he was frustrated at all with his performance. He felt he could play better. Everybody felt they could have played better than they did. We’ve just got to get better.”
That includes Mayo.
“We had had opportunities time and again,” he said. “I just didn’t play well. Sometimes it happens.”
As long as sometimes doesn’t become oftentimes, USC can keep hoping.
Helene Elliott can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.