UCLA finishes strong with 85-74 victory over USC
Before UCLA played USC on Wednesday, Norman Powell and the rest of the UCLA seniors teased each other about who would cry first in what was possibly their last game at Pauley Pavilion.
For Powell, senior night was bittersweet, but a return here would be a sadder ending. The only way for the Bruins to play in Westwood again this season would be in the NIT.
UCLA beat USC, 85-74, to clinch fourth place and a bye in the Pac-12 Conference tournament. They have a quarterfinal game next Thursday, and have a week to rest and prepare and hope they’ve done enough to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.
“We’ve still got work to do, just like a lot of teams in the country,” Coach Steve Alford said. “You can’t stop.”
The bye means the Bruins (19-12 overall, 11-7 in the Pac-12) will play the winner of the first-round game between USC and the No. 5 team, currently Stanford. After that, a potential matchup against top-seeded Arizona looms.
Two tournament victories would be a convincing closing argument. But one victory? None?
“I think we’ve done enough,” Powell said. “It’s just time to get some more wins in the tournament to secure that spot.”
One thing in UCLA’s favor, Powell and Alford agreed, is the team is playing as well as it has all season. The Bruins have won three consecutive games. Against the Trojans, the defense lapsed, at times, but the offense popped.
Powell has been the engine late in the season, but he was jittery, he said, and his shot was askew. Yet, the starters scored all but two of the Bruins’ points.
Bryce Alford was lethal. He was seven of 10 from the field and finished with 23 points.
“It was just one of those nights when the basket feels really big,” he said.
Tony Parker dominated inside. He scored 22 points, and six of his seven rebounds were on offense.
Kevon Looney had 13 points and 13 rebounds.
USC (11-19, 3-15) has played more competitively of late, but it hasn’t had the firepower to win many games.
On Wednesday, the Trojans made 11 of 19 three-point shots, their best percentage of the season.
Katin Reinhardt made more shots than he missed, a rarity, and scored 22 points. The streaky Elijah Stewart had 14 points.
But USC could not contend with Alford’s jump shot or Parker’s work on the boards. They led the Bruins on a 19-5 run in the first half, and USC could not recover.
For USC, the loss, its fifth in a row against UCLA, meant it would finish alone in last place in the conference.
“Even when contested, they shot over us and hit like five threes,” Coach Andy Enfield said. “I give them credit for that. UCLA played a terrific basketball game.”
Afterward, Steve Alford laid out UCLA’s best case for an invitation to the NCAA tournament. The Bruins have only one loss at home, to No. 7 Gonzaga. They have played the toughest schedule in the Pac-12. They have wins against Utah and Oregon, and two against Stanford.
All UCLA can do now is hope to add to that in Las Vegas. In the meantime, the team will practice. The coaches will take time to recruit.
Parker, who is 6 feet 9 and 260 pounds, said the time off will be exciting because “I get to go to yoga.”
But the electioneering for an NCAA invitation, he said, he would leave to the coaching staff.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand
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