UCLA men’s basketball edges out rival USC with nail-biting victory

Down by two, Jaylen Clark found himself open at the top of the key.

The junior guard had shot 4-of-14 to that point, his team just shooting marginally better after blowing an 18-point halftime lead to its crosstown rivals. The odds were not in his favor.

With 20 seconds remaining, Clark launched the ball, only for it to carom off the rim. But in a rare stroke of opportunity, fifth-year guard David Singleton secured the rebound before passing it back out to Clark for the shot at a second chance.

Clark saw his chance, took it and swished it.

“It took guts to take the shot,” said coach Mick Cronin. “It took a lot of guts, but make or miss, you’ve got to do it, it’s the right play.”

Off Clark’s go-ahead triple, no. 10 UCLA men’s basketball (14-2, 5-0 Pac-12) staved off a late run to defeat USC (11-5, 3-2) by a score of 60-58 at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday evening.

Through 20 minutes of regulation, the Bruins found themselves with a 44-26 advantage. Such a lead was uncommon for a team much more used to tightly contested rivalry games and even defeats to the Trojans for the majority of the coach Mick Cronin era.

“I saw it coming in the first half,” Cronin said. “We took some shots that were just ridiculous for no reason when we had a chance to bury them.”

And then the horrors of UCLA rivalry past started creeping up in the second half.

“I’m not going to lie, I didn’t expect to be up 20 at halftime,” Clark said. “As a team, most people probably thought they would roll over, and they came punching back.”

The usual suspects of Trojan guards Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson each played a part, with both scoring four points in the final 20 minutes. Bruin players themselves were to blame as they went scoreless for over eight minutes, leaving their halftime lead and 10-game winning streak in jeopardy.

But an unfamiliar face, guard Reese Dixon-Waters, bore the brunt of the comeback with 12 second-half points on 100% shooting off the bench.

“We planned for Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis to really go off, and we game planned for them so much, I think we let the other guys slip up and get some points that we really shouldn’t have given up,” Clark said.

Time and again, Dixon-Waters helped his team claw back. A two-pointer cut the lead to 10. Another stepback jumper brought the deficit to a single possession. With 32 seconds left, he floated in a hook shot to claim the Trojans’ first lead since the opening minute of the contest.

To that point, it seemed UCLA’s fate was spelled out like rivalry games of recent memory.

In the end, it took an offensive rebound and a second chance 3-pointer from Clark to erase all of that.

The sellout crowd – fans of Bruin lore – should be no stranger to the hijinks of the matchup.

“In the second half we just let them punk us. I mean, it’s really as simple as that,” said senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr.. “We weren’t getting to our spots, guys couldn’t get open, we couldn’t finish at the rim, couldn’t make free throws. It was just a lot of things that we just weren’t doing that we usually do.”

Senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. passes behind his back. (Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo Editor)

Two points in the opening helped from its leading scorer in Jaquez might’ve spelled trouble, but an ensemble of blue and gold teammates all chipped in.

Coming off a career-best 18-point showing against Washington, Bona posted an efficient six points and five boards in the first half. His +19 plus/minus in the first 20 minutes was only topped by Clark, who led the charge with 12 points through the period.

The Bruins were without freshman guard Amari Bailey for the third straight contest because of a foot injury, but Singleton filled in at the guard spot. The 50% shooter from deep entering Thursday knocked down three 3-pointers – all in the first half.

However, the trio of Bona, Clark and Singleton only patterned six points in the closing 20 minutes. Clark’s go-ahead jumper marked his only points of the period.

“We started messing around, got exactly what we deserved,” Cronin said.

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