Last week's Pac-12 spotlight game was played in Los Angeles where cross-town rivals UCLA and USC set out to prove whether the prevailing would reflect the new order or old guard. USC made it clear that the weather is changing in the Southland.
The game itself wasn't exactly high-level basketball, but the passion with which the low-scoring battle, which ended in a 47-43 victory for the Ladies of Troy, was fought made it well worth watching nonetheless. Amid the dozens of missed shots and extended scoring droughts for both sides, the battle largely played out on defense, and, in particular, on the glass.
Like a wrestler finally breaking free from an extended head lock, USC may have found itself as a team at the John Wooden Center last Saturday.
According to USC guard Ashley Corral, she and her teammates expected the game to be laden with bumps and bruises.
UCLA always brings physicality, especially with us, said Corral.
USC entered the game with a 43-37 record against the Bruins, but had lost its four most recent encounters with their cross-town rivals. Time and again, the Women of Troy had been outscrapped, outhustled and outscored by UCLA. In the four-game UCLA-led tutorial, the Trojans missed shots early, lost confidence, and watched the Bruins pick them apart on the boards and in the open court. Twice in the four defeats, the Women of Troy committed 20 turnovers, three times in the four-game slide, they were outrebounded by double digits. USCs offensive leader, Briana Gilbreath wilted first, missing 37 of her cumulative 45 shots in the four losses.
The losing streak to UCLA so rankled USC coach Michael Cooper, he issued the following prescription after last Januarys 42-61 loss at Pauley Pavilion: I thought our defense was going to be a lot better. Weve got to get a lot nastier.
And on Saturday, it looked like the Trojans had finally taken the prescribed medicine. Call it "nastier," call it "tougher," USC -- which has played the toughest schedule in the conference and the second-toughest in NCAA Division I, based on their Strength of Schedule (SOS) ranking from realtimerpi.com -- defined themselves anew.
Gilbreath along with Cassie Harberts and Alexyz Vaioletama stood toe-to-toe with the Bruins, rebounding just enough, scoring just enough, defending tightly enough to squeeze out the 47-43 win.
It certainly wasn't the Trojan offense that got the job done. UCLA held USC scoreless for more than nine minutes in the first half, USC's field-goal shooting dropped from a respectable, if far from prolific 11-of-26 (42.3 percent) in the opening period to an abysmal 18-percent in the second stanza when the Women of Troy knocked down just six of their 33 attempts from the field (and an even worse one-of-eight -- or 12.5 percent -- from the arc). Only one Trojan player, senior Ashley Corral, finished in double digits on the scoreboard, and that was with just 10 points.
Instead, USC got it done on the glass, with Cassie Harberts and freshman Alexyz Vaioletama hauling down 10 rebounds apiece -- and every single Trojan player grabbing at least one -- to win the battle of the boards by a 48-40 margin, including a 15-9 edge on the offensive glass. They got it done on defense, holding the Bruins scoreless from the arc, and to a meager 30.4 percent from the field for the game. And they got it done down the stretch, when, after the Bruins had closed to within one, Harberts made just enough of her free throws to enable USC to prevail.
After three weekends, the Trojans have sole possession of second place in the conference at 4-1.