LOS ANGELES -- UCLA's 68-54 win over rival USC on Tuesday night was less about stats and more about passion.
Atonye Nyingifa scored 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting to lead No. 17 UCLA in the Pac-12 matchup, and Nyingifa had help from Thea Lemberger (12 points), Jasmine Dixon (10 points) and Markel Walker (11 rebounds, 8 assists) as the Bruins (20-6, 11-4 Pac-12) built a lead as large as 27 points and ended a two-game losing streak.
But UCLA coach Cori Close said the numbers her staff tracks aren't found in the box score.
"Playing with more passion," Close said. "We have a statistical thing that we keep, and they're called passion plays. They're non-statistical things that don't show up in a box score, but we believe it's a really good indicator of us playing with great energy.
"Things like 50-50 balls that could go either way, but we're going to be quicker to them, it's going to be assist screens on offense, it's going to be deflections, all those things that when you're quicker, you're anticipating, you're faster, those things come out. And we had a record today of passion plays for the year. That's why we looked faster. We were ready to play with selfless passion, team passion."
USC (8-18, 5-10) lost its seventh in a row, and its 18 losses are the second-most in school history, surpassed only by 20 losses in 1998-99.
Cassie Harberts, who began the night ranked third in the Pac-12 averaging 17.8 points per game, led USC with 17 points and nine rebounds. Ariya Crook added 10 points for the Trojans but was just 4-of-19 from the field. USC shot 28 percent for the game and was outrebounded 49-40.
USC and UCLA play again Sunday at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion.
"I don't think we came out to play as hard as we should have," USC coach Michael Cooper said. "Eventually we got it going the last 10 minutes of the game, but that's what we should have been doing the first 30 minutes of the game. It's another loss we've got to overcome, and we've got to shake it some kind of way."
The Trojans trailed at the half 34-19 but looked as though they might make a run at the Bruins by coming out strong to start the second half. Christina Marinacci, the Trojans' only senior on the team, got a quick steal and Crook hit a short jumper to make it 34-21 and get the USC crowd fired up. But the Bruins quickly doused USC's spark with some pinpoint outside shooting from their backcourt players.
Lemberger hit consecutive 3-pointers to give UCLA a 40-21 lead. Moments later, Walker was good on another 3-pointer and the Bruins were up 43-23.
"It's guard play," Close said. "Our front line, Nyingifa and Dixon and (Alyssia) Brewer, they've been pretty consistent all year, but people have been double-teaming a lot. It comes down to guards knocking down some shots and moving the basketball so we can get easier feeds. I'm really proud of our post play for delivering, but I'm even more proud of the growth in our guards."
USC went into the game having lost six in a row but had to feel at least some confidence coming off a hard-fought loss to No. 6 California two days earlier. In that one, the Trojans were within four points of Cal in the final 2 minutes of the game before eventually losing by eight. But any momentum the Trojans might have felt was nowhere to be found.
"That's not what I was expecting out of tonight," Marinacci said of USC's performance. "We just didn't execute on the things that we needed to, and we had some lapses on defense and they killed us on the offensive boards in the first half. Those are things we can't have. It's tough to say we have to play a perfect game, but the little mistakes that we make really hurt us in the end. We just didn't focus on the little things today."
The Trojans fell behind quickly when UCLA took a 4-0 lead. But USC kept it close and trailed just 10-9 after Harberts scored underneath on a pass from Marinacci.
The Trojans, though, got sloppy over the next several minutes. On their next five possessions, they had three turnovers and two missed shots, and the Bruins went on a 10-0 run to take a 20-9 lead with 9:15 left in the first half.
UCLA, led by Nyingifa's 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting, finished the first half strong, going up 34-19 on Dixon's layup in the final seconds. Dixon had a productive half for UCLA, scoring 10 points.
USC got 11 points from Harberts in the opening half but shot poorly both from the field (6-of-25) and from the free throw line (6-of-13). USC also held a 26-18 rebounding edge at the break, led by eight from Walker.