UCLA fights off USC’s 18-point comeback to extend winning steak to 11

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Westwood, CA, Thursday, January 5, 2023 - UCLA Bruins guard Jaylen Clark (0) celebrates as the Bruins hold on to beat USC 60-58 at Pauley Pavilion. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

UCLA guard Jaylen Clark (0) celebrates as the Bruins hold on to beat USC 60-58 at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

If at first you don’t succeed, get the ball back in the hands of Jaylen Clark.

With his team on the verge of an epic collapse in the final minute against its archrival, badly outplayed for the entire second half, the UCLA junior guard found himself open for a three-pointer.

He missed.

As Clark’s shot caromed off the rim, the Bruins trailed USC by two points with 19 seconds left and the sellout Pauley Pavilion crowd grew uneasy at the prospect of the home team dropping a game that it once led by 18 points early in the second half.

The Bruins would get one more shot at redemption courtesy of senior guard David Singleton, who snatched the rebound and immediately fed Clark for another open look from beyond the three-point arc. Without hesitation, Clark rose for another try.

“When I saw David had it,” Clark would say later, “I knew it was going in in my head before I even caught it.”

His vision came true. Clark’s second shot fell through the net with 15 seconds left, the celebrity-packed crowd roared and 10th-ranked UCLA held on for a 60-58 victory Thursday night in what could be dubbed the Great Escape after Boogie Ellis’ baseline jumper at the buzzer was off the mark.

“We lucked out and got up out of here with a win,” said Clark, who led the Bruins (14-2 overall, 5-0 Pac-12 Conference) with 15 points, “but it’s not a performance we’re really proud of.”

Going small in the second half and relying on a swarming defense that held UCLA scoreless for eight minutes, the Trojans furiously rallied thanks in large part to the efforts of sixth man Reese Dixon-Waters. His 12 points in the second half matched UCLA’s total over the first 19 minutes 45 seconds before Clark made his three-pointer and Singleton added a free throw.

“We had to match their energy,” said Dixon-Waters, whose hook shot had given the Trojans a 58-56 lead with 32 seconds left. “We came out slow, lethargic in the first half, so we had to match their energy and their intensity on offense and defense. Just ball movement and getting open shots.”

USC guard Boogie Ellis drives past UCLA forward Adem Bona during the first half at Pauley Pavilion.

USC guard Boogie Ellis (5) drives past UCLA forward Adem Bona (3) during the first half at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Down by one after Clark’s three-pointer, Clark figured the Trojans would go back to Dixon-Waters. They never got the chance. Ellis was called for an illegal screen on Clark with seven seconds left, doubling down on disappointment after Ellis had missed a box-out on Singleton’s rebound.

The Trojans then quickly fouled Singleton, who converted one of two free throws to extend his team’s advantage to two points before Ellis’ final shot came up short.

Singleton and Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 12 points each for the Bruins, who extended their winning streak to 11 games despite being outshot 50% to 22.7% in the second half while also losing the rebounding battle by three.

Clearly agitated by his team’s massive letdown, UCLA coach Mick Cronin delivered a short postgame address to his players. Cronin told Clark that it took guts to take the last shot and that he was proud of him before letting assistant coach Rod Palmer do the rest of the talking.

But Cronin had plenty to say a few minutes later when he met with reporters.

“I saw it coming in the first half, guys,” Cronin said. “We took some shots that were just ridiculous for no reason when we had a chance to bury them. We took a lot of selfish shots. And then they made adjustments.”

Dixon-Waters finished with 16 points while making all seven of his shots for the Trojans (11-5, 3-2), whose 44-26 halftime deficit was their biggest of the season, as well as a late-night wakeup call.

“It was embarrassing in the first half,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “It embarrassed me as a head coach. To come out in a rivalry game and be down 18 at halftime, to give the effort we gave, it was embarrassing for all of us.”

The humiliation belonged to UCLA in the second half … before the final sequence.

“We just let them punk us,” said Jaquez, who missed several layups and had two shots blocked in a four-minute span by USC reserve Harrison Hornery. “I mean, it’s really as simple as that. 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.”

In the end, the Bruins found a way, even if it was a victory that left their coach feeling as if his team had lost its way. Asked how he reconciled pulling out the win with also giving up such a big lead, Cronin eyed a reporter sternly.

“Do I look happy?” Cronin said. “No reconciliation.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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