LOS ANGELES — One defensive rebound. That’s all that stood between USC men’s basketball and an upset win over UCLA in Pauley Pavilion three weeks ago. One defensive rebound, and the Bruins would have no choice but to foul the leading Trojans, who could then extend their lead with free throws.
Instead, no one boxed out David Singleton, who ran in from the corner to grab the loose ball and pass it to Jaylen Clark for the go-ahead 3-pointer. And the Trojans’ second-half comeback was for naught.
As the Trojans prepare for the rematch against their crosstown rivals Thursday at Galen Center, they hope someone who did not play in the first matchup can make a big difference.
Since USC and No. 8 UCLA last met, freshman center Vincent Iwuchukwu has arrived. The former five-star recruit did not play in the first 16 games of this season after surviving cardiac arrest during a summer workout. He made his debut after the UCLA loss, against Colorado, but was a step slow in his first two games as his body caught up with his teammates’.
But last week, Iwuchukwu started to find his feet. He scored his first career points against Arizona, then officially announced himself in USC’s win against Arizona State. He scored 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting and grabbed five rebounds. He also blocked a shot and had a thunderous put-back dunk, all in 14 minutes off the bench.
“I almost got a tech and my man almost scored on the other end [while] I’m over there celebrating with him,” fellow USC freshman Tre White said. “They cooked me in film for that, but I’m with you, Vince, I’m with you.”
In the matchup against UCLA, Iwuchukwu provides what USC missed three weeks ago: size.
With Joshua Morgan having an off night, UCLA freshman forward Adem Bona had his way in the paint in the first half. The Bruins won the rebounding margin 36-30, and of course there was that last fateful miss on the glass.
Though Iwuchukwu is still on a minutes restriction as his health continues to be monitored, teammates are noticing the difference he makes behind them on the defensive end of the court.
“Sometimes you do your hardest to run guys off the line and lock up, but when I have Vince out there, and Josh and all our big men, I feel like I have a safety net out to where if I do get beat I know he’s going to protect shots, block them and things like that,” White said.
“I think he’s finding his timing. He’s certainly improved dramatically since the Colorado game,” Trojans head coach Andy Enfield added. “When Vince is playing at that level, it helps our team. I think both teams are pretty evenly matched, and it’s going to come down to what team executes the best and who plays the hardest.”
It will still be Iwuchukwu’s first taste of the rivalry. But for all the underclassmen who seemed rattled in the first half against UCLA three weeks ago, there’s a sense that they benefitted from that experience and won’t be surprised by the rivalry environment.
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“You hear about the rivalry, but actually being inside of it, it’s a totally different atmosphere,” White said. “Experience does help, but it was really on us. We had chances where we locked them, but we didn’t do our little, small things to execute. But I feel like this game, we got some games under our belt, we got that energy and we’re ready for it.”
No. 8 UCLA at USC
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Galen Center
TV/Radio: ESPN 2/AM 790/AM 570
Records: UCLA 17-3, 8-1 in Pac-12; USC 14-6, 6-3