UCLA eliminates USC, reaches Pac-12 championship game – Press Enterprise

LAS VEGAS – The two regular-season games between UCLA and USC were tight affairs, with each team clawing back in comeback attempts only to be stymied in the final minute or seconds.

But when the two rivals met in a Pac-12 Tournament semifinal in Las Vegas on Friday for a rubber match, the second-seeded Bruins left little doubt about the result, relentlessly out-executing No. 3 USC to the tune of a 69-59 win.

The Bruins were led by their three hot-shooting guards, with Jaime Jaquez scoring 19 points and Jules Bernard and Tyger Campbell adding 15 and 14, respectively. Guard Boogie Ellis tied his career-high with 27 to lead the Trojans.

UCLA (25-6) advances to face top-seeded Arizona (30-3) in the title game on Saturday at 6 pm, the Bruins’ first appearance in the championship game since 2014.

“It’s what we all work for, try to get that trophy and cut the nets down,” Jaquez said. “So we’re all excited, we’re ready to go.”

USC (26-7) returns to Los Angeles to await its NCAA Tournament seeding on Selection Sunday after losing three of four – two to UCLA and one to Arizona – to close the season.

“We know the stakes down the stretch,” USC guard Drew Peterson said. “We’re gonna stay confident, we’re gonna be in the gym and we’re going to be ready to go.”

Friday’s performance was a masterclass in taking care of business by the Bruins. There was little flash, no clear stand-out performer in the game, no defining run to put the game to bed. But UCLA led for all but 3:29 of the 40 minutes.

UCLA played smothering defense, holding USC to 39.6% shooting from the floor. When the Trojans responded with better second-half shooting, UCLA upped its game to shoot 54.5% in that period. The Bruins limited mistakes, turning the ball over just nine times while making 17 of 21 free throws.

The beginning of the game was eerily similar to last week’s matchup between the crosstown rivals at Pauley Pavilion. Both teams started out hot from the field and playing at a frenetic pace before the Trojans went into a deep scoring lull, with multiple stretches of several minutes without points or a field goal.

The UCLA defense was everywhere, from Myles Johnson – inserted into the starting lineup – swatting away a Chevez Goodwin hook shot at the rim to Bernard ripping away the ball when Isaiah Mobley attempted to hand it off while screening the guard.

By the time the first half was over, the UCLA student section was able to chant β€œair-ball” at three USC players – Mobley, Peterson and Ellis had all failed to draw iron.

“Defensively, I thought that was as good as we’ve played in a while,” UCLA head coach Mick Cronin said. “If you defend, you always got a chance.”

And Campbell was hot, early. He quickly scored a layup on a drive then drained a 3-pointer, holding out three fingers by his ankle as he ran up the court. He made three of four 3-pointers in the first half as UCLA built an 11-point lead.

Despite its offensive struggles, USC was able to shoot the ball well from 3-point range, too, going 5 for 12 on first-half looks. Ellis knocked down his first two attempts, turning to howl at his own bench as he ran up the court after the second. Those looks helped USC stay within eight at halftime.

But freshman Peyton Watson helped UCLA pull away again. After the Trojans got within four, the Long Beach Poly product rattled off his own mini 7-0 run. First, he lobbed the ball to Johnson for a layup near the end of the shot clock. On the other end, he blocked a Kobe Johnson layup before hitting a second-chance floater and a 3-pointer to stretch UCLA’s lead back to 11.

He made some freshman mistakes, too, such as a travel on an iso attempt and a moving screen on consecutive possessions. But it was a boost for UCLA as it won its eighth game in nine attempts.

Ellis did his best to keep the Trojans – without key reserve Reese Dixon-Waters (groin) – in the game. By the end of the game, he spent every dead ball with hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath after another ferocious drive the rim.

“I was just trying to do whatever it took to help my team win the game,” Ellis said.

But he did not get nearly enough help. Only five Trojans scored, and Peterson was the only other in double-digits with 11. Mobley struggled for the second straight game, shooting 4 for 11 from the field while missing all four 3-point attempts. And USC only recorded six assists in the game.

“We need a higher assist total for us to reach our potential offensively,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “Unfortunately, we could not keep up with the score even though it was a fairly low-scoring game.”

Instead, it was UCLA that walked away with the season win over the Trojans, though that was not top of mind for the Bruins after the game.

“We’re just worried about tomorrow,” Campbell said. “Get a win tomorrow, come out, give it all we have.”

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