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It's UCLA by a nose over USC in Pac-12 quarterfinals

It's UCLA by a nose over USC in Pac-12 quarterfinals
USC guard Elijah Stewart and UCLA forward Ike Anigbogu battle for a loose ball during the first half Thursday night. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA didn't need to fill a whiteboard with the intricacies of its high-scoring offense or its much-improved defense.

The Bruins' game plan heading into the Pac-12 Conference tournament was simple: Just do what they do, be who they are and don't change a thing in the wake of a lengthy winning streak that coincided with their best basketball of the season.

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Then UCLA went out and looked nothing like itself against its archrival Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena.

The Bruins committed turnovers, missed shots and failed to consistently defend at the high level that had sparked their late-season surge.

They prevailed thanks to some good old-fashioned luck, USC's Bennie Boatwright missing a three-pointer that could have tied the score and the Trojans also missing two layups in the final minute.

Third-ranked UCLA trudged off the court in sweaty relief after its 76-74 quarterfinal victory was secured only after Bryce Alford threw a long outlet pass to Isaac Hamilton, who dribbled out the final seconds after Boatwright had made a three-pointer.

Hamilton saved UCLA from a potential seeding free fall in the NCAA tournament, making a baseline floater that put his team ahead, 74-69, and finishing with 22 points to help the Bruins stretch their winning streak to 10 games.

UCLA (29-3) advanced to a semifinal to play No. 7 Arizona (28-4), which should enjoy a considerable edge in fan support if the red that became the primary color inside the arena earlier in the day was any indication of what's to come.

"We know we're going to have to be better [Friday] night than we were tonight," said UCLA Coach Steve Alford, whose team shot only 41.2% and scored its fewest points since its last defeat, which came against the Trojans in late January.

Alford lauded his players' defense on USC's Chimezie Metu (eight points) and Boatwright (11), not to mention the fact that the Bruins never allowed the Trojans to take the lead.

"Even in a game where we were a little bit off, you look at the numbers and it was still pretty convincing that way," Alford said. "It was only a two-point win, but it was tied for 20 seconds and we led the rest, so I'm really proud of our guys. We've had very, very few nights where we haven't shot it well or scored in the 80s-plus and this was one of those nights and yet we find a way to get a win."

It had looked like UCLA might win in a runaway when the Bruins went on a 12-0 surge early in the second half over more than four minutes. There was a Bryce Alford corner three-pointer, a Thomas Welsh dunk and a Hamilton reverse layup, the Bruins also getting good defense while building a 50-37 lead.

But the Trojans crawled back, possession by possession. There was an improbable half-court lob from Jordan McLaughlin to Elijah Stewart for a dunk before Stewart pulled USC to within 71-69 with 4:23 left on a corner three-pointer. USC Coach Andy Enfield stripped off his suit jacket and tie amid the tension.

The Trojans wouldn't go away even after Hamilton's floater gave the Bruins a five-point lead. Metu made two free throws to draw the Trojans to within three points and Boatwright missed a three-pointer that could have tied it with 37 seconds left. McLaughlin and Stewart later missed layups that could have made it a one-point game.

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

USC (24-9) appears safely in the NCAA tournament even with the loss, considering the Trojans have a better record than they did last season, when they were seeded No. 8 in the East Regional.

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"You don't get 24 wins if you're not a good team," Enfield said. "And I'm going to remind you, Bennie Boatwright was out 18 games. If we were on the East Coast, that's all we'd be talking about. But because we're on the West Coast, no one even mentions that."

Stewart finished with 17 points for USC, which shot only 38.7% for the game.

UCLA power forward TJ Leaf was strong all around in his return from the sprained left ankle that had forced him to miss nearly two full games, finishing with 14 points, six rebounds and five assists while wearing a black wrapping around the ankle. Lonzo Ball had 12 points, seven assists and four rebounds.

Bryce Alford nudged himself into the top spot in school history for three-pointers when he made one late in the first half. He had entered the game tied with Jason Kapono, having made 317 before Thursday, and now has 319.

Twitter: @latbbolch

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