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UCLA’s Mick Cronin bemoans Bruins’ defensive effort in loss to rival USC

USC was doing whatever it wanted, as if UCLA granted its rivals the deed to the area around the basket.

Ethan Anderson drove for a layup. Nick Rakocevic curled into the paint for a dunk after beating Jalen Hill on a backdoor cut. Rakocevic missed a shot underneath the basket and it was no problem because he got not one tip-in opportunity but two, finally converting on his third chance.

Making the abundance of easy baskets early in the second half all the more jarring for the Bruins, the Trojans were scoring at will with barely any contribution from their best player.

Onyeka Okongwu was a nonfactor because of passivity and foul trouble, but it didn’t matter given the surge of production from his teammates that powered the Trojans to a 74-63 victory on Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion.

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“Because they were focused on him, we had other guys step up,” USC coach Andy Enfield said after his team defeated the Bruins on their home court for the first time since January 2016. “That’s what it takes. It’s a team game.”

USC (13-3 overall, 2-1 Pac-12 Conference) made eight of its first nine shots after halftime and shot 69.6% while scoring 41 points in the second half, quieting UCLA’s season-high sellout crowd of 13,659 that included Bruins legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar along the baseline and Bill Walton at midcourt on the television broadcast.

“Obviously, our defense in the second half is about as bad as it can get,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin, who also credited the Trojans for what he described as a couple of backbreaking three-pointers late in the shot clock.

Rakocevic led the way for the Trojans with 17 points and 14 rebounds, helping his team deliver a strong rebuttal to its 32-point loss against Washington last weekend.

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“I probably played one of my worst games against Washington,” said Rakocevic, who made two of 14 shots on the way to six points in that game, “and tonight I probably played one of my best. You just gotta move on. You just gotta come with a new mentality.”

Guard Jonah Mathews added 16 points and Anderson finished with 14 for the Trojans. Okongwu was an afterthought with four points on two-for-three shooting to go with two rebounds, three blocks and four fouls, but it hardly mattered given his team shot 57.4% for the game.

“You give up 57% for the game defensively, it’s hard to win,” Cronin said. “You actually have no chance.”

Gonzaga recorded its 31st consecutive regular-season victory over a Big West opponent with an 87-62 win over Loyola Marymount.

UCLA (8-8, 1-2) has won all eight games this season while holding opponents to 73 points or fewer, but guard Prince Ali said the Bruins had identified giving up only 65 points as their preferred threshold. Even that wouldn’t have been enough Saturday given UCLA’s continually sputtering offense that made three of 13 three-pointers (23.1%) and shot 37.9% overall.

Chris Smith finished with a team-high 16 points for the Bruins, but he was relatively quiet after scoring 11 in the first half on an array of moves, including a baseline drive for a dunk over Daniel Utomi. Hill scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half.

USC’s efficiency allowed the Trojans to stretch a two-point halftime lead to 11 midway through the second half, putting the Bruins in need of points in a hurry. UCLA continued to trap in the backcourt and cut its deficit to six before Utomi buried a corner three-pointer with 3:41 left, deflating the crowd’s energy.

“We’re not a good defensive team,” Cronin said. “I’m not making excuses for our guys anymore.”

Two weeks after an embarrassing loss to Cal State Fullerton, UCLA returned to its home court and delivered another clunker while getting outrebounded for the first time this season 35-31.

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“Our problem was we only had 19 defensive rebounds in the game because we couldn’t stop them,” Cronin said. “All we did was get it out of the net, especially in the second half.”

Payton Pritchard scores 29 points in leading No. 9 Oregon to a 78-69 victory over Arizona State; Stanford keeps rolling by beating Washington State.

Smith said the Bruins had regressed in defense and rebounding since their stunning victory over Washington to open Pac-12 play. They have given up 76.5 points since then while teetering dangerously close to a losing record.

“We just have to play with more effort,” Smith said, “especially on defense.”

The Trojans, meanwhile, hope to have found a spark that could propel them to far greater things.

“Now our momentum is back,” Mathews said, “and we’re rolling again.”


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