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USC Hoops Remain in Contention for Postseason Berth, and well, Beats UCLA Too

USC (10-6, 2-1) is presently in third place in the Pac-10 and on track to go dancing in some form this March, whether an NCAA Tournament bid or an appearance in the NIT Tournament. Either way, the season won't end following an 18-game Pac-10 regular season slate like it did in 2010. At the very least, there's always the Pac-10 Tournament to look forward to. So, cheers!

Last week, ESPN's Joe Lunardi pegged 'SC as an 11-seed and one of the final four teams to make the tournament, so odds are that the postseason is within the realm of possibilities. Sunday's 63-52 win over UCLA illustrated just that, keeping the Trojans on track to go dancing for the fourth time in the past five years.

But most importantly, USC looked good Sunday evening, playing exceptionally well on the defensive end, limiting the Bruins' most NBA-ready player in Tyler Honeycutt to 10 points and seven turnovers. But if you want to delve into Xs and Os and other factors, the Trojans won because they stopped the Bruins inside. UCLA's forward-center combination of Reeves Nelson and Josh Smith combined for a mere total of 22 points, with Smith sitting for significant portions of the game due to foul trouble.

On the other hand, USC's tandem of Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic were arguably the two best players on the floor, especially Stepheson. As Shotgun Spratling points out:

Despite going up against Smith and his 55 extra pounds, Stepheson was a beast on the boards. He snatched nearly every ball near him to finish with a career-high 16 rebounds.

"His energy on the boards was key for us," USC coach Kevin O'Neill said. "His effort was tremendous."

Stepheson played a game-high 38 minutes and was a presence in the middle. On the defensive end, he bodied up Smith, the biggest opponent Stepheson said he's ever played. He held Smith to only eight points and three rebounds. On offense, Stepheson was 5-for-10 from the floor and threw down three dunks -- two coming after he grabbed offensive rebounds.

"Stepheson really did a nice job in the middle and we didn't control him," UCLA coach Ben Howland said.

Collectively, USC outrebounded UCLA 32-28 and controlled the flow of the game as a result. As illustrated, Stepheson was instrumental in that regard.

The Trojans' offense wasn't anything extra ordinary, shooting just 5-of-16 from beyond the arc and 46.3% from the field. But it did everything it had to do to win. In controlled the glass, committed just 11 turnovers in comparison to 17 on part of UCLA and held Howland's group to under 40% shooting. That alone, keeps USC in games and it so happened that they won it as well.

Anytime USC beats UCLA in basketball, it's always tempting to point out the larger significance, asking how it changes the landscape of the hardwood edition of the rivalry? Last year, I wrote that the gap was narrowing between the two schools basketball-wise after USC swept the Bruins.

This time, I don't wish to talk about gaps. As one of the Daily Bruin writers mentioned to me yesterday, both of these teams, programs are essentially mirror images of each other: playing under defensive-minded coaches. The difference, however, is relatively simply. USC plays hard for Kevin O'Neill, particularly its best player in Vucevic (sorry K.O. but it's not Fontan). UCLA's top players, on the other hand, Honeycutt and Nelson take plays off and seem disinterested.

I'm not sure what's happened in Westwood, but Howland doesn't connect with his teams as he once did. On the other hand, K.O. has never had this team playing harder.