They could feel it on the way to the timeout huddle in the final minutes, Johnny Juzang high-fiving Peyton Watson and Jules Bernard clapping like he never wanted to stop.
After matching its latest lockdown defensive effort with some efficient offense, UCLA just needed a closeout special against USC in a Pac-12 Conference tournament semifinal late Friday night.
Bruins guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. provided more certainty, driving for a layup that had his teammates standing in celebration on the bench.
All that was left was to run out the clock on the second-seeded Bruins’ 69-59 victory over the third-seeded Trojans that moved UCLA into the conference tournament championship game for the first time since 2014 while settling another important debate.
The rivalry needed resolution, if even just for this moment, this latest battle for supremacy.
Round 1 went to USC in February, the Trojans pushing through the absence of their top player, guard Drew Peterson filling the void to overflow with one improbable shot after another.
Round 2 went to UCLA last week, the Bruins saying they needed to put their life on the line and playing as if that wasn’t an exaggeration, willing themselves past their crosstown counterparts for the first time in more than three years.
Those conflicting results left the teams and their respective fan bases in need of some clarity on the eve of the NCAA tournament. Even with bigger games ahead, an unofficial city title hung in the balance.
No banners would be raised, no jewelry designed as a result of the outcome — although UCLA fans might joke otherwise after the Trojans recently distributed Elite Eight rings — but the winners could tug on the front of their jerseys, pulling out the letters on the chest to declare themselves the best college basketball team in Los Angeles.
That distinction went to the Bruins (25-6), who will face top-seeded Arizona in the championship game Saturday evening.
Not even a career-high-tying 27 points from guard Boogie Ellis could keep the Trojans afloat on a night they were outmanned by so many strong across-the-board efforts from UCLA. Jaquez led the Bruins with 19 points, Bernard added 15 and Tyger Campbell had 14.
With Bernard in foul trouble, Watson made the most of some bonus minutes midway through the second half. In one sequence, he blocked a shot by USC’s Kobe Johnson before converting a floater on the other end of the court. After Bruins center Myles Johnson forced Ellis into an airball — the Trojans’ fourth of the game — Watson followed with a three-pointer that nudged his team into a 49-38 advantage.
It wasn’t all highlights. Watson committed a traveling violation and an offensive foul before quickly departing.
After Ellis buried a jumper to pull USC within 51-45, the Bruins received some much-needed offense from leading scorer Juzang, who had been stuck in an extended funk since returning from a sprained right ankle. Juzang sank a jumper and found Bernard in the corner for a three-pointer that pushed the Bruins’ cushion to 56-47.
It’s been a long time since either the Bruins or the Trojans cut down the nets in this tournament. UCLA has not won the event since 2014, when it was played at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. USC’s title drought is even longer, its roster including DeMar DeRozan and Taj Gibson when the Trojans last prevailed in 2009 … in what was then the Pac-10 tournament at Staples Center.
Both teams were safely in the NCAA tournament regardless of the outcome Friday, leaving only doubts of seed, not seeds of doubt. ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi told the Los Angeles Times earlier this week that UCLA could rise as high as a No. 2 seed by winning the Pac-12 tournament, though a No. 3 seed was more likely.
Lunardi projected USC as a No. 7 seed in his Friday bracket. One bonus of winning the rivalry rematch between the Trojans and Bruins was increasing the likelihood of remaining on the West Coast for the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, with spots available in San Diego and Portland, Ore.
Over the last week and a half, USC had played like a team that deserved to get shipped to Buffalo, N.Y. The Trojans suffered a 20-point beatdown against Arizona, needed a late rally to avoid a blowout loss to UCLA and appeared on the verge of a turnover-fueled collapse in their Pac-12 tournament opener before holding off Washington.
Their struggles continued in the early going Friday.
Johnson moved back into the starting lineup and announced his presence by hectoring Peterson into a turnover on USC’s opening possession. The Bruins quickly matched the blunder, a Campbell charge 53 seconds into the game giving UCLA as many turnovers as it had in the entirety of the last meeting between the teams while setting a school record.
Like it did the previous night, UCLA’s defense made things excruciating midway through the first half, holding the Trojans to one of 10 field goals at one point. Isaiah Mobley, Peterson and Ellis each airballed a shot in the first half and USC compounded its issues by missing four consecutive free throws.
It had all the ingredients of a UCLA rout. After Clark grabbed an offensive rebound that led to a Campbell three-pointer, the Bruins held a 36-24 lead and the Trojans called timeout. Peterson finally gave USC some much-needed momentum before halftime when he pulled the Trojans within 36-28 with two free throws and a baseline jumper.
They would never get much closer, the rivalry belonging once again to the Bruins.
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