The noise stretched out Pauley Pavilion, roaring cheers shaking Nell and John Wooden court with enough spirit to awaken the legends.

It was wintry Saturday afternoon UCLA basketball at its finest.

And goodness, these Bruins can play.

They're tough, they're skilled, they're deep, and they're big enough for the moment, which has rarely been bigger than Saturday's clash with fellow unbeaten USC.

The Bruins won, and it wasn't pretty.

The Bruins won, and it was beautiful.

Bodies flying, nerves rattling, hearts banging as the undefeated crosstown rivals met as top-10 teams for the first time in 42 years.

The Bruins won, and they're really, really good.

They're ranked No. 2 in the country behind South Carolina, but that's because poll voters aren't so quick to believe in a program that hasn't won a national championship in 45 years.

Believe it. They could be the nation's best. They proved it in a heart-stopping 71-64 victory over a sixth-ranked USC team that was eventually mauled into submission.

"It was such a gutsy win," UCLA coach Cori Close said.

It was also a symbolic win, emblematic of the potential rise in popularity of women's basketball in Southern California, folks selling out a storied arena for a sport that normally gets lost in the winter avalanche of local teams

With the Lakers and Clippers and UCLA men and USC men and Kings and Ducks playing in the same months, who has the bandwidth for women's college hoops?

For the longest time, nobody. But this season, with UCLA reaping the rewards of the nation's best recruiting class and USC riding the steady shoulders of amazing freshman JuJu Watkins, people are finally paying attention.

This accounted for the thunderous cheers that stormed the court for two hours Saturday night followed by a prolonged lingering of fans that only occurs when the crowd knows it has seen something special.

It was the hottest sports ticket in town. It was witnessed by the likes of Russell Westbrook, Candace Parker and Baron Davis. They saw a fiery battle that matched the heat of the hype.

"This is about something bigger than just this one game," Close said. "This is about growing Southern California basketball, especially girls and women in sport ... not taking away from men's sports, but adding to."

Added USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb, "We really appreciate what this does for women's basketball."

But more than that was what this game did for UCLA.

The Bruins, now 12-0 with three wins over top-20 teams, play smart and savvy basketball, period. They are worth watching, period. They are arguably the most well-schooled basketball team in town and worthy of your eyeballs not only because it is women's basketball, but simply because they are that good.

The Bruins began the game by throwing T-shirts into the stands during introductions. They ended the game leading the crowd in an eight-clap before walking around the court, hugging and high-fiving hundreds of fans.

This is one of the charming quirks of a team that knows and embraces its audience.

"When you're trying to build a program ... it's about more than entertainment, it's about a connection to the journey of these young women," Close said. "That's one of the ways that we can just connect with the people and tell them thank you and maybe inspire just one little kid. I just think the fans really appreciate really feeling a part of their journey."

In between the cool gestures, these really nice Bruins were really rugged, shoving USC from baseline to baseline, forcing Watkins into missing 17 of 24 shots, blocking nine shots, recording seven steals, playing with the sort of urgency that one finds on national television in April.

"They're a really good team, we're a really good team, and we needed to have every battle," Close said

Close said one of the team's goals was to have 75 passion plays per game, displays of hustle that might go unnoticed.

"We had 76 and we needed every one," she said.

Acknowledged Gottlieb, "That's what they do. … It took us a minute to adjust and deal with the physicality. … Our players had a hard time moving around."

The Bruins were so brutal, a dehydrated Watkins ended the game on her back behind the bench with leg cramps.

The Bruins were so relentless, when USC closed the gap to one midway through the fourth quarter, Londynn Jones calmly nailed two long three-pointers before the Bruins forced a 10-second violation against a Trojans team that couldn't get the ball up the court.

"You can't teach the moxy and the swagger," Close said.

And you can't teach that connection. When Gottlieb called a timeout with five seconds left and her cause hopelessly lost, the crowd loudly booed, and when is the last time you've heard that sort of angst in this building for anyone not named Steve Alford?

The fan involvement is just part of Close's balanced attack, as she empowers everyone around her for the greater good.

One of her themes is, "Sometimes you, sometimes me, always us."

This was ever true Saturday. While leading scorer Lauren Betts was in early foul trouble and held to 15 points, Jones scored 21, KiKi Rice added a dozen, and Watkins' main defender Charisma Osborne scored 10 with a team-leading six assists.

"It's easy to have a little ring and a slogan, but it's hard to live out when maybe something doesn't go your way," Close said. "That's what I'm most proud of. We have balance. On any given night it can be any given person."

And on this night, with every elbow and sharp edge, it was everybody.

"We came into today knowing that whatever happened, we were going to be the tougher team," Betts said.

"I told London it seemed like she wanted the ball in those big situations. She said anybody who is hot is getting the ball.

"We do a really good job of making sure we do find that person and when we do, we continue to go to them," she said.

The Bruins, led by the great Ann Meyers Drysdale, won a national championship in 1978 under the women's sports governing body AIAW. Since joining the NCAA in 1984, they haven't advanced past the Elite Eight, but they've increasingly come close to greatness.

They've had five Sweet 16 appearances in the last eight years under Close, including last season's Sweet 16 loss to South Carolina.

This could be the year they go beyond. This could be the year they break out. If so, they will do so with as much appreciation as aggressiveness.

"We stand on the shoulders of a lot of people who came before us," Close said. "We really want to maintain that sense of gratitude and humility that we don't do this alone."

The news conference ended with Close in tears while remembering the late Jan Cloyde, a legendary Bruins women's basketball fan and mentor who died last summer.

"I literally thought to myself, 'I hope she and my dad are watching this game together,'" she said. "And maybe bring along Coach Wooden too."

And, my, how Coach would have smiled.


(Bill Plaschke, an L.A. Times sports columnist since 1996, is a member of the National Sports Media Hall of Fame and California Sports Hall of Fame.)

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