LOS ANGELES (AP) — Big man Joshua Smith didn’t move fast enough before the game, and it cost UCLA in the first half against rival Southern California.
The Bruins overcame an awful opening 20 minutes, when Smith was glued to the bench as punishment, and won 55-40 Wednesday in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament at Staples Center.
Lazeric Jones scored 15 points, Travis Wear added 12 and twin brother David had 10 rebounds as the Bruins completed a season sweep of the hapless Trojans, who lost their season-high 10th in a row.
UCLA coach Ben Howland said he sat Smith because the sophomore was 4 minutes late getting to the team bus. He finished with five points and zero rebounds after picking up three fouls in less than a minute.
“I looked for the bus, and it was gone,” Smith said. “One of the managers was there. I said, `Did the bus leave?’ We got over there (to Staples) before the bus, but I shouldn’t be late.”
Howland said: “It hurt us because he’s our best inside scoring threat.”
At the same time, he didn’t think twice about issuing a reprimand.
“I don’t care,” Howland said. “This is too big and too important.”
Howland said the Bruins rode the two blocks from their hotel to the arena because last year while walking over for a night game they encountered fans who were drinking.
“I wanted to avoid that,” he said, adding that Smith had been on time to team activities all season. “It took a little longer (driving) because you had to go all the way around the block.”
USC coach Kevin O’Neill said he didn’t immediately notice that Smith wasn’t playing.
“He’s a force to reckon with down low,” O’Neill said. “We didn’t have anybody that could guard him at all.”
The fifth-seeded Bruins (19-13) advanced to a quarterfinal game Thursday against fourth-seeded Arizona, which got a first-round bye. The teams split in the regular season. Arizona suspended point guard Josiah Turner for the tournament Wednesday after he violated unspecified team rules.
The Bruins won their third in a row and will need three more victories to take the tournament title and guarantee themselves a spot in the NCAA tournament. Otherwise, they’re likely to miss out for the second time in three seasons.
“We’ve improved as the season has progressed,” said Howland, whose leadership of the program was called into question in a Sports Illustrated story last week. “We’ve been right there in many of the games that we’ve lost.
“I don’t think there was any sense of panic. They showed a good resolve and toughness that we’re going to get this going.”
USC (6-26) finished with a school-record number of losses and was held under 50 points for the 13th game, tying a record from the 1948 season.
The 12th-seeded Trojans were led by freshman Byron Wesley with 13 points and Garrett Jackson with 11. Leading scorer Maurice Jones, who accounts for nearly 25 percent of his team’s scoring, was held to seven points.
“This season has been very frustrating for me personally and also for the whole team,” Jones said. “I’ve never lost this many games in my life in one season, and it’s an adjustment.”
The Trojans had won their first game of the tournament the four previous times they had played in it, including last year, when they reached the semifinals. But injuries that decimated the lineup and poor shooting doomed them throughout the season. They went 1-19 in their final 20 games, with their lone Pac-12 win coming against new league member Utah.
“This season was definitely tough,” Wesley said. “Despite all these injuries we’ve had, today’s game really hurt. Now we just have to start moving on.
“We lost to our rival UCLA three times. That can’t happen.”
Both teams stumbled through an abysmal first half, with UCLA shooting 23 percent to USC’s 28 percent. They combined for eight assists and 11 turnovers.
The Bruins took control for good with a 26-4 run over both halves that extended their one-point halftime advantage to 39-25 with 14:09 remaining. Shortly thereafter, Smith picked up three fouls in quick succession and delivered a swift kick to the sideboards before sitting down.
UCLA got balanced scoring in its decisive spurt, with Smith contributing a three-point play, Tyler Lamb hitting two 3-pointers and Jones scoring seven points.
“We calmed down eventually, and we started to take better shots and move the ball around better,” Lazeric Jones said. “Basketball is a game of runs. They had theirs, and luckily we had ours in the second half.”
The Bruins closed the first half on a 9-0 run to erase an eight-point deficit and lead 22-21, the fewest points the Bruins have scored in a half this season.
Jones had five points and Travis Wear four in the spurt. The Trojans didn’t score over the final 3:57, with Jones going scoreless despite playing all 20 minutes.
USC’s Greg Allen was called for a flagrant foul on Jerime Anderson, who fell and got struck in the mouth, drawing blood.
“They said it was an elbow to the head,” O’Neill said of the referees’ explanation. “The three of them brainstormed, went over to the monitor and came up with that.
“When three guys like that came up with that flagrant foul, I have to agree with it,” he said in a deadpan tone.
O’Neill added: “They made the right call, don’t get me wrong. The rule is stupid, and they need to adjust it.”
USC’s Eric Strangis missed a layup with 1 second remaining, and the Bruins began bolting from their bench for the locker room. But the referees reviewed the video and restored the clock to 1.2 seconds, enough time for David Wear to launch a long final shot that fell short.
UCLA improved to 2-1 all time in the tournament against USC.