Aaron Holiday’s three-pointer bounced out of the rim, smacked against the backboard and bounced back through the net.
He needed no such luck on his next shot, driving for a left-handed layup. Holiday pumped his arm on the way back up the court, UCLA’s lead nearing double digits in the final minutes of a must-win game against its biggest rival.
Holiday carried the Bruins to an 83-72 victory over USC on Saturday night at the Galen Center, squeezing every ounce of effort out of his 40 minutes and allowing himself another moment to celebrate when he clapped his hands after dribbling out the game’s final seconds.
Holiday finished with 34 points on 11-for-16 shooting to go with seven assists and five rebounds to help the Bruins (20-10 overall, 11-7 Pac-12 Conference) sweep their season series with the Trojans (21-10, 12-6) while enhancing their NCAA tournament chances.
“What a monster effort for him,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said after his team posted its fourth consecutive victory in the cross-town rivalry.
USC seniors Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart could only walk off the court in somber fashion after ending their final home game with a thud, the Trojans getting outscored 43-29 in the second half.
UCLA secured the No. 4 seeding in the Pac-12 tournament and will play in a quarterfinal Thursday against fifth-seeded Stanford or 12th-seeded California.
“This means a lot for us pushing forward,” Holiday said after the Bruins improved to 3-0 this season against the top two teams in the Pac-12. “We got the last win before the tournament, so let’s just go out there and see what we can do.”
USC will open the tournament Thursday against Washington or Oregon State.
The Trojans’ four-game winning streak ended largely because of their defensive shortcomings. They did little to slow Holiday or Kris Wilkes, who scored 22 points despite playing the second half with five stitches on his lip after getting inadvertently head-butted by teammate Prince Ali while trying to help him up off the court.
“We just couldn’t get stops,” McLaughlin said after scoring a team-high 19 points but making only eight of 19 shots. “We played pretty well throughout the whole game, we just couldn’t get stops on defense.”
UCLA shot 50.8% to USC’s 40% and the Bruins made 13 of 27 three-pointers while holding the Trojans to five-of-19 shooting from long range.
There was some symmetry between this game and the teams’ first meeting as UCLA wiped out a big second-half deficit once again. This time the Bruins erased the eight-point cushion the Trojans held early in the second half after Stewart stole the ball from Holiday and fed Shaqquan Aaron for a breakaway dunk.
Holiday continually inflicted damage with his passing and scoring, giving the Bruins a 65-61 lead after a three-pointer in transition. UCLA eventually extended its advantage to 72-63 when Wilkes drove and passed to Alex Olesinski for a corner three-pointer.
“We got stops and ran, so that really helped our transition,” Holiday said. “Once we got stops they weren’t scoring and we were, so that really helped.”
There were handshakes and hugs before the game when USC recognized its seniors before their final home game. McLaughlin, Stewart and walk-on Kurt Karis were honored with video tributes, framed jerseys and cheers. Stewart played in his 133th game, tying the school record set by Dwight Lewis.
Both teams were a bit short-handed. USC played its fourth consecutive game without junior forward Bennie Boatwright, who has been sidelined for the rest of the season with a left knee injury.
UCLA was missing freshman point guard Jaylen Hands, who sprained his right ankle in practice this week. His absence reduced the Bruins’ regular rotation to seven players and necessitated Ali moving into the starting lineup and giving walk-on guard Alec Wulff meaningful minutes.
Wulff made the most of them, confidently sinking a three-pointer in the first half as his teammates rose from the bench to cheer. There was more celebrating to come.
“This is going to be a nice bus trip back to Westwood,” Alford said. “I want them to enjoy this tonight.”
Thursday in Pac-12 Conference quarterfinals, T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, Pac-12 Networks— At 2:30 p.m., fourth-seeded UCLA will play the winner of a first-round game between fifth-seeded Stanford and No. 12 California. At 6 p.m., USC, the No. 2 seed, will play the winner of a first-round game between No. 7 Washington and No. 10 Oregon State.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch