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Bruins pull it off after give and take

An elbow to the face.

Not enough to draw blood or even leave a mark. Just enough to heat things up.

It was still early in Sunday night’s game between USC and UCLA when Bruins center Drew Gordon stuck an elbow out at Trojans guard Daniel Hackett, who was doing a fair amount of talking.

Mark the time at 10 minutes 37 seconds to play in the first half. The unofficial start of the college basketball season in Los Angeles.

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From that point on, the cross-town rivalry settled into a scuffle as nasty and loud as anything Tobacco Road might offer, with 10th-ranked UCLA scrambling back in the final minutes for a 64-60 victory at the Galen Center.

“This rivalry never gets old,” UCLA guard Darren Collison said. “It’ll always be here.”

The Bruins (13-2, 3-0 in Pacific 10 Conference) won with trademark defense, finding a way to slow down USC and its star freshman, DeMar DeRozan. Forward Nikola Dragovic, a surprise starter, made several key shots down the stretch.

The Trojans (10-5, 1-2) fell short despite ferocious defense and dominant play inside. DeRozan scored a team-high 15 points before appearing to run out of gas at the end.

But maybe the biggest statistic of the game was the announced attendance of 10,258. It was the first time either team had played in front of a supercharged crowd in its own city, the first chance for Los Angeles fans to stand up and scream.

“We shot better than them, we rebounded better and we were even in turnovers,” Hackett said. “It came down to a couple plays where they executed and we didn’t.”

Leading up to this game, there had been a good deal of talk about the state of the rivalry, at least on the basketball court. With Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo gone, could it generate as much buzz as last season?

Or try this: With both teams coming off consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, should it be mentioned in the same breath as, say, North Carolina and Duke?

“They were trying to say that in the last couple of years but we don’t need to compare ourselves to North Carolina and Duke,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said beforehand. “We’re USC and UCLA. It already is a great rivalry.”

At the very least, Sunday’s game drew not only a big crowd but also clusters of scalpers loitering outside.

“You want $80?” one potential buyer said, incredulously.

“But they’re courtside,” the seller shot back.

Instead of Love and Mayo, the paying customers got this season’s models -- DeRozan and UCLA’s Jrue Holiday -- Los Angeles freshmen who have played with and against each other since middle school.

Holiday struck early, hitting a pair of three-point shots as UCLA opened an 11-point lead.

Things looked especially bad for the Trojans when forward Taj Gibson collected his third foul less than six minutes into the game and went straight to the bench. But, as USC Coach Tim Floyd said, “our guys hung in there.”

With UCLA going scoreless for almost four minutes, DeRozan made three jump shots to pull his team within 33-31 by halftime.

The Trojans then put together a 12-0 run in the first minutes of the second half -- again, DeRozan doing much of the damage -- to lead by six points.

That’s when UCLA began to settle down, in part by putting more defensive emphasis on DeRozan. Holiday asked to guard DeRozan and Howland said yes. The other Bruins helped.

“They took away my jump shot by switching on everything,” DeRozan said. “I couldn’t get the looks I was getting in the first half.”

Surrounded by a crowd that rose to its feet, howling, Holiday drove to his left and banked a layup high off the glass, over Gibson’s outstretched hands, to give UCLA a two-point lead.

Dragovic scored the next six points and Collison, who had a game-high 18 points with six assists, made a free throw to seal the victory.

Afterward, Gordon said he was taken aback by the sheer volume of the crowd, especially after his elbow to Hackett’s face, which drew no foul but prompted a hail of boos.

“It was completely accidental,” he said. “Hopefully, the fans don’t hate me for it.”

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david.wharton@latimes.com


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