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UCLA women staying competitive; USC still looking for answers

UCLA women staying competitive; USC still looking for answers
Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) shoots against UCLA during the first half on Sunday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

At practice, the USC women’s basketball team comes alive. The Trojans refuse to lose to the players they practice with; they are sharp and intense, and distribute the ball.

In games, they are not the same.

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“We came today with the same positivity,” Ja’Tavia Tapley said after USC’s Friday night loss to No. 5 Oregon. “But we didn’t come with the same heart, the same umph, that we come with in practice.”

USC and UCLA faced a challenging Pac-12 test in weekend matchups against Oregon and No. 10 Oregon State. Both teams came away with a pair of losses; USC fell to Oregon 93-53 and Oregon State 76-52, and UCLA lost to Oregon 72-52 and Oregon State 83-73.

The losses left the Bruins (9-8, 2-3) tied for seventh in the Pac-12, but they were competitive in both games. The Trojans (10-6, 0-5), tied for last, struggled to even contend — which coach Mark Trakh attributes to lower in-game intensity.

“When you’re in a game and you make a mistake, it’s amplified,” Desiree Caldwell said. “And it kind of just brings the whole energy down. So it’s kind of hard to, in a sense, stop the bleeding.”

USC and UCLA’s seasons have taken opposite trajectories. The Trojans’ preseason was full of promise, with redshirt senior transfer Mariya Moore eligible to play alongside her sister, junior Minyon Moore. But the Bruins had just lost their top two scorers, Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, who were drafted to the WNBA with the No. 5 and 15 picks.

And at first, the teams played as their preseasons suggested, with USC making a 9-0 start and UCLA going 3-5. The Trojans appeared in the USA Today coaches’ poll, at No. 25, for the first time since Nov. 15, 2011, and received votes in the AP poll. The Bruins defeated then-No. 14 Georgia but cracked under competition they were supposed to easily beat, like Loyola Marymount.

“We knew… that wasn’t the way that we wanted to perform for the rest of the season,” sophomore forward Michaela Onyenwere said. “And it was a little bit finding our identity.”

The Bruins did just that, building confidence and learning how to play to each other’s strengths. They went on a six-game winning streak.

Meanwhile, the Trojans traveled to Texas, where they handled UT-Arlington but buckled against then-No. 24 Texas A&M in their first loss of the season. Against the Aggies, the Trojans scored their lowest point total of the season, 51.

The Moore sisters have emerged as expected, averaging a combined 27.8 points per game, but they are the only Trojans averaging more than 30 minutes; only Minyon Moore, a point guard, averages more than five rebounds for USC. But four Bruins earn more than 30 minutes of playing time, with Onyenwere and senior guard Kennedy Burke emerging as the team’s scoring leaders.

UCLA defeated USC 72-65 in a Pac-12-opening clash. Since then, the teams have faced a series of identical tests.

“We had the toughest start in the conference,” UCLA coach Cori Close said.

That began Jan. 4 with a pair of away games against No. 6 Stanford and then-No. 18 California. Stanford trailed both L.A. teams at halftime and beat both behind a high-scoring third quarter.

UCLA upset California, but not even Mariya Moore’s career-high 36 points and school record seven three-pointers could push the Trojans past the Golden Bears.

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The Bruins received votes in the USA Today coaches’ poll. USC dropped to 0-5 in the conference and has gone 1-6 since the season-opening winning streak.

Against ranked opponents UCLA has performed, starting with the Nov. 14 win over then-No. 14 Georgia. The Bruins are 2-3 against ranked opponents, the Trojans 0-5. UCLA averaged 73 points against ranked opponents, USC 55.8. UCLA has outrebounded every ranked foe but Oregon; USC’s rebounding margin dropped from 1.7 to -7.2 against ranked teams.

No. 5 Oregon and No. 10 Oregon State promised to be an even tougher slate of weekend competition.

USC lost Minyon to an undisclosed injury Friday night, and Oregon successfully contained Mariya Moore by forcing her into foul trouble early, leaving Mariya shouting in frustration with her arms outstretched at her second foul call in the first half. Junior forward Kayla Overbeck was knocked off her feet while fighting for a rebound. Trakh raised his voice in the halftime speech for the first time all season.

“This is really the first game in two years that we were not competitive in…” Trakh said. “From start to finish, we weren’t competitive in this game.”

UCLA still has areas to improve to close out almost-wins, like against Oregon State and Stanford. But the weekend games left Close optimistic about the season ahead.

“They will respond, and they will learn from this experience, and we will be better,” Close said. “I think the one thing we have proven to ourselves is I think we are in the upper echelon of this conference. We have grown into being capable.”

USC, meanwhile, is left searching for answers.

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