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Battle for LA ends with Bruins topping undeafeated Trojans

The battle for LA was close, as UCLA is victorious over the undefeated USC in conference opener.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles, CA -- The PAC 12 conference tipped-off with the 12-0 USC Trojans traveling across town to take on the #21 ranked UCLA Bruins. In the 85th meeting of the battle for LA, the competitive forces were flying, but the Bruins were able to contain control with a 78 to 73 win.

Although undefeated in nonconference play, the Trojans had yet to play any nationally ranked teams this season, while the Bruins went into the match-up 8-3, losing close games to higher ranked teams.

"The game was relentless," said UCLA coach Cori Close. "I'm proud of my team's selflessness. It's about those four letters across their chest; it's about UCLA."

UCLA struggled in the first minute with turnovers, as a huge steal by Brianna Barrett, locked in the first points of the game, and immediately afterward, another quick turnover by UCLA gave USC the momentum early on. Brianna Barrett led the Trojans with speed, agility and sharp passes to keep the lead midway through the first.

UCLA continued to struggle getting into motion, having difficulty with ball control. Monique Billings continued her aggressive nature down low, getting defensive boards and shooting long passes, one of which was a pretty one down the court to Nirra Fields for an easy two.

Communication was off for the Bruins on both ends of the court in the first, as they were down, 14-11 to a Trojan team who were able to truly spread the Bruins defense thin. After a much needed timeout, the Bruins looked more fluid setting up their plays, emerging with a 17-14 to end the quarter.

Jordin Canada came into the second period hungry, making fierce drives to the basket, helping the Bruins to maintain their lead midway through the second. USC's Temi Fagbenle, came up with a crucial steal for two, displaying her veteran experience as their graduate student and Harvard transfer. Tough defensive play by the Trojans, especially Brianna Barrett, helped USC to cut the lead to one with two minutes left in the half, but the Bruins were able to remain on top 32 to 30.

Canada continued to push down the court, contributing seven points in the first half. Monique Billings dominated down low, finishing the half with eight total rebounds and Fields led the Bruins with 10 points. Temi Fagbenle dominated on the Trojan side with 15 points and 7 rebounds in the first half.

Kristen Simon and Brianna Barrett each contributed six points. USC had a total of 13 second chance points, compared to UCLA's mere eight second chance points, which was clearly an opportunity UCLA needed to focus on going into the second half.

At the end of the half, UCLA Coach Cori Close said, "We need to come up with those loose balls and rebounds."

UCLA had the ball to start the second half, and they started strong with a deep three by Kori Kover. Then Canada, with a SportsCenter worthy drive to the basket, kept the Bruins barely in the lead four minutes into the third. USC struggled with simple turnovers, forcing a timeout with 4:49 left in the third as they fell, 45-39 behind UCLA.

Nirra Fields came out of the timeout with an opportunity for a three-point play, but falling short with the free throw. USC struggled getting their shots to drop, but continued to stride down the court quickly. Only her second game with the Trojans, Sadie Edwards hit a perfect three, followed by a Bruin's turnover and a foul put USC within two with 15 seconds remaining in the third.

Fagbenle tied up the game in the first minute of the fourth with an easy layup, but UCLA was able to get back on top with two free throws by Fields. Both teams had hot hands, trading points on each possession and keeping the lead neck and neck.

With the game tied, Canada got an old-fashioned three-point play by hitting t a difficult shot to propel the Bruins to a 65-62 lead. Monique Billings stood out midway through the forth, commanding the ball and locking down difficult shots.

With the shot clock waning, Kennedy Burke nailed a buzzer-beating three, that gave the Bruins a more comfortable lead and forced a timeout with 3:17 left in the game. A persistent Barrett did all she could, but it wouldn't be enough tonight, as UCLA held on for the victory.

Billings again led the Bruins with 23 points and 12 rebounds, with Canada right behind her with 22 points and playing a full 40 minutes. USC's Fagbenle showcased her talents leading the Trojans with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Barrett finished with 18 points, and Kristen Simon had 11 points and led the Trojans in rebounds with 14.

After the game Coach Cooper-Dyke reflected, "I thought it was a well-fought battle, I've very proud of the effort my team put out for 40 minutes." An optimistic coach continued, "We're very satisfied right now, not with losing, but with our effort".

When asked about how she feels this game reflects how they will play into a fierce PAC-12 conference, coach responded, "We consider UCLA in the upper echelon of the conference, and we will be in the upper echelon of the conference."

Overall, Brianna Barrett was also happy with what her team showcased, "We played their fast break really well. I had fun tonight." As USC looks forward to more conference play, coach knows her young team must improve along the way, "We're going to go back to the drawing board and get better."

UCLA coach Cori Close was enthusiastic about the effort on the court from both teams and was proud of her team unity.  When asked about what clicked in the locker room during halftime, coach gave all the credit to her players, "This was a players game. They made the changes at halftime."

Overall, the game was the perfect display of competitive and passionate playing that both teams possess, and an excellent preview of what's to come as the PAC-12 conference reigns as the top conference in the country.

Coach Cooper-Dyke said it best when reflecting on tonight's game.

"This was a great game for women's basketball, very competitive game from the beginning to the end; that's what you want to gain fan support." Both teams will have the opportunity to battle for LA soon enough, when they meet again on January 10th at USC.