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Column: Bruins get the win but know they have to play better

Lonzo Ball, De’Anthony Melton
UCLA guard Lonzo Ball picks up a loose ball in front of USC guard De’Anthony Melton during the first half.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

USC could have won this game. USC should have won this game.

UCLA needs to think about that as it advances into a postseason that is quickly making them skittish.

And the NCAA tournament selection committee needs to think about that as USC goes home to wait for what should be not only a guaranteed bid but a decent seeding.

On a tumultous late Thursday night at the T-Mobile Arena, the Bruins were the official winners in the crosstown rubber match in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament, defeating USC, 76-74.

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But it felt like the other way around.

The Bruins, entering with a nine-game winning streak and coming off a 32-point win against the Trojans just last month, led the entire game but had to sweat their way through a variety of Trojans tumbles in the final seconds to survive.

“Just one of those nights,” said the Bruins’ Lonzo Ball, who missed 10 of 14 shots as the nation’s highest-scoring team matched its lowest-scoring output in nearly two months. “Still got the win, so that’s always positive.”

The Trojans, who as recently as Wednesday night felt compelled to openly campaign for a spot in March Madness, showed they possess just enough madness to belong there and enough moxie to scare plenty of teams once they arrive.

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“We can play with anybody,” said USC Coach Andy Enfield, whose 24-9 team has showed it.

The Bruins now must regroup quickly before Friday night’s semifinals against Arizona, which has already beaten them once this season and looked March ready Thursday in an earlier blowout of Colorado.

“Obviously, a very difficult game,” said Bruins Coach Steve Alford. “We know we’ll have to be better than we were tonight.”

The Trojans, meanwhile, will be kicking themselves all the way back to Los Angeles.

“We got the stops we needed to win,” said Ball, but it seemed like the Trojans mostly stopped themselves.

With 3:59 left, the Trojans had cut the Bruins lead to 71-69 and UCLA’s Thomas Welsh had just missed a jumper. But Welsh grabbed the offensive rebound, got fouled and made a free throw, and that’s sort of how the last moments went.

USC had every chance to pull off the upset, but simply couldn’t make the one play it needed.

His team still trailing by three, USC’s Bennie Boatwright walked. Then after a Bruins miss, Boatwright missed a layup. Then finally, with 37 seconds left, the Trojans had a chance to tie on Boatwright’s three-point attempt. He missed.

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Then, on an ensuing possession in the final 20 seconds, both Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart missed two-point shots that could have cut the lead to one, and that was that.

“It came down to the end,” said Boatwright. “We either didn’t convert, or we didn’t get the call. It was just tough.”

The Trojans need to work on their late-game discipline if they want to be able to finish the job in the early tournament rounds next week against teams that will probably lack USC’s athleticism.

The Bruins, meanwhile, need to work on their composure in the face of postseason pressure. No doubt teams will now watch this tape and believe that UCLA can be harried and harrassed.

The Bruins committed 19 turnovers, allowing the Trojans to score 15 points off those mistakes. That can’t happen. Bryce Alford made only two of 10 shots. That can’t happen. The Bruins only scored a half-dozen fastbreak points, and that can’t happen.

“SC is … a seed we’re going to find, a team we’re going to find,” said Alford, comparing the Trojans to possible early round opponents next week. “This will be a game we bring back up to the guys.”

In UCLA’s defense, Alford warned them that this opening game could be their toughest.

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“I’ve always felt ... I even told the guys earlier in the week that the quarterfinal game I think is always the hardest on the the team that hadn’t played because they’ve [USC]played in here the night before, so they’re used to the enviroment,” said Alford.

But when Alford looks at this film, he said can remind his players of something other than their struggles.

“Knowing that we led most of the game and then to be able to pull it out in the end, you know, this will be something we’d look at next week,” he said.

So, besides the victory, there actually were a few other positives on this night for the Bruins.

But Arizona is positively waiting to test them again.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke

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