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Alexander: It’s USC’s night in win against rival UCLA

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LOS ANGELES — Do numbers lie? Generally, no. But they can mislead.

Consider the curious case of college basketball supremacy in L.A. Going into the second UCLA-USC meeting of the season, the Bruins were No. 5 in the NCAA’s NET evaluation metric while the Trojans were 62nd. In Ken Pomeroy’s computer evaluation system, UCLA was No. 3 and USC No. 51.

And we won’t even talk about the polls. UCLA was eighth in this week’s AP poll and seventh in the USA Today coaches’ poll, after losing to Arizona last weekend in Tucson. USC? Not even among those others receiving votes. Even UC Santa Barbara got a 25th-place vote in the coaches’ poll.

But that’s why they play the games. And the Trojans – and particularly Boogie Ellis – made a statement that suggests the numbers don’t tell anywhere near the whole story in a rousing 77-64 victory over the Bruins at Galen Center.

Ellis, who felt responsible for the Trojans’ 60-58 loss three weeks ago at Pauley Pavilion, and who had just four points at halftime on Thursday night before a raucous Galen Center crowd, lifted his team on his shoulders in the second half: 7-for-10 shooting, 3 for 4 from the 3-point line, 10 for 10 from the foul line, three rebounds and three assists while playing all but the final eight seconds.

Redemption? Maybe.

“Boogie was upset last game at Pauley,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Missed a shot to tie it at the end, and was called for an offensive screen with 15 seconds left in the game. So he was disappointed. But we’re a team. One play doesn’t decide a game usually.

“… Tonight it didn’t come down to the last minute and our guys did their job.”

Ellis struggled in the first half on Thursday – 2 for 7 from the field, 0 for 5 from the 3-point line, didn’t get to the foul line – and the Trojans (15-6 overall, 7-3 Pac-12) had their own struggles offensively, hovering around 30% shooting for most of the half and really doing everything well but making shots. And then they scored 25 of the first 31 points of the second half, including an 18-2 run that had the Bruins (17-4, 8-2) on their heels.

“Me and Drew (fellow senior Drew Peterson) told the guys that we’ve been in this position before,” Ellis said. “We can’t panic, you know. We’re gonna come out, we’re gonna hit ’em in the mouth in the second half, forget what happened in the first half. And then, I mean, we’ve been through it. Me and Drew, we’ve played in big games, played in big atmospheres, so it was really our job to calm the team down.”

Did we say the Galen Center atmosphere was raucous? USC’s game presentation, with the inimitable DJ Mal-Ski pumping up the noise every time the ball isn’t in play, is a cross between an NBA game and the hottest, or at least loudest, nightclub in town. The 9,605 on hand, the vast majority wearing cardinal and gold, responded to the prompts and left no doubt that it was a USC home game.

That isn’t always the case with USC basketball, even in an era when the Trojans win far more than they lose. It’s still a football school, you know. In the first half Thursday night, the biggest roar still came when quarterback Caleb Williams was introduced, did the Heisman pose and, naturally, participated in the T-shirt toss during a timeout. That’s before the basketball team produced its own impetus to roar.

“I thought last year’s (UCLA game at Galen) and this year’s game were the two best atmospheres we played in, in ten years,” Enfield said. “I’ve been coaching off and on for 28 years in the NBA and in college, so I’ve been doing this a long time. And if you go to some of the arenas, our home crowd at this year’s or last year’s UCLA game was as good as anywhere I’ve ever been. And it’s such a big advantage for our players. We would not have come back from 12 down at halftime without the energy that the fans provide, and we’re very, very thankful for that.”

Then again, not every USC home game is that way. Until Thursday night, the Trojans had drawn more than 4,500 at home only twice. But the Trojans are 10-1 at Galen this season, with the only loss coming to Enfield’s old Florida Gulf Coast team in the opener way back in November. And they’ve now beaten UCLA five straight times downtown.

“They made some great shots,” Bruins coach Mick Cronin said. “Give the Trojans credit … They turned up the heat, they created deflections. We didn’t handle it. Then they got going. Once they got going, the crowd got behind them. They made some unguardable shots.”

Of course, Cronin being Cronin, he added: “We were supposed to be more aggressive on (Ellis). We played him soft and he made his play. And that’s what he does when you’re playing soft.”

So do those numbers really matter at this point? And will there be some narrowing in those metrics, now that UCLA has lost two in a row?

Even a decade into his tenure at USC, Enfield is … well, not defensive necessarily, but he seems overly anxious to point out what his team has achieved – the graduation rate, the recruiting highlights (one of their October signings, four-star point guard Silas Demary Jr., attended Thursday night), and the seven Trojan alumni in the NBA over the last five years. And don’t forget reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament two years ago, or being ranked as high as No. 5 last season. He didn’t mention those Thursday night, but those are part of the resumé as well.

But to truly achieve equity in this town, at least in perception, the Trojans need to start making some deep runs in the postseason. After that run to the regional final in 2021, USC went out in the first round against Miami in 2022.

So, as Ellis noted Thursday night, “It’s a good win, but we still got work to do, still got work to handle. We still gotta get better. We can’t get complacent. We can’t lose any games that we’re supposed to win.”

Then again, you can look at it this way. L.A.’s Pac-12 teams both seem to be closer to playing for a championship at this point than L.A.’s NBA teams.

jalexander@scng.com

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