Arash Markazi
Saturday March 15th, 2008

This is what O.J. Mayo must have had in mind when he signed to play at USC last year -- Los Angeles and a basketball in the palm of his hand, as he dribbled up court with the clock winding down.

Down 57-54 against UCLA in front of a sold-out Staples Center crowd, Mayo milked every last second and flashing light bulb before firing a potential game-tying three-pointer that bounced out and knocked USC out of the Pac-10 Tournament.

It will likely go down as the last Los Angeles-based shot Mayo takes in a USC uniform. If that turns out to be true, it was a fitting finale in a script that has yet to see an ending; one that Mayo and the Trojans hope falls under the "Hollywood" variety come tournament time.

While Mayo has raised the profile of the USC program since he arrived on campus, he hasn't taken it to the heights he had envisioned. Last year, the Trojans finished the season 25-12, advancing to the Pac-10 tourney final and then the Sweet 16. This year's squad (21-11) will have to go deep in the tournament to rival those accomplishments, and they believe they will do just that.

"We have a lot of experience and confidence from last season and I think this team can go just as far," said Taj Gibson. "We have a lot of young guys, but we know what it takes come tournament time."

The confidence is understandable considering the youth of the senior-less Trojans, who start three sophomores and two freshmen. While the Trojans began the season with three straight conference losses, they won 12 of their last 16 games and found a chemistry that's rarely seen in underclassmen.

"We had injury obstacles all year long, and we have a lot of youth. But the best thing that happened is that we started 0 and 3 (in conference) and didn't panic," said USC coach Tim Floyd. "We're a young team and we're getting 96 percent of our scoring from freshmen and sophomores, and that's a tribute to the talent and heart this team has."

It's the kind of chemistry that might make Mayo, who says he has registered for summer classes at USC, consider coming back and taking another last-second shot at the Staples Center in cardinal and gold.

"I'm not the best player in the world right now," said Mayo. "I don't know everything about basketball right now ... I'm just focused on getting better."

While Mayo sat in USC's locker room long after the game, still in his uniform as his teammates headed out, Kevin Love, Mayo's friend and arch-rival, headed out of Staples with a smile on his face, his future plans outside of the NCAA Tournament still in limbo.

"I really don't know what I'm going to do," said Love. "I haven't made up my mind. Maybe how we do in the tournament will affect my decision, but I don't know."

Love, the Pac-10 Player and Freshman of the Year, has had the kind of impact on his team -- and on college basketball -- that Mayo had hoped for. Then again, Love went to a team that had gone to two straight Final Fours, and on Friday, became only the fourth team in NCAA history to win 30 games in three straight regular seasons.

"I've been on winning teams my whole life from the third grade through high school and up until now," said Love. "I just wanted to win, and I want to help my teammates win."

It was Love who galvanized UCLA in the second half after the Bruins found themselves down eight points before Darren Collison hit a buzzer-beater just before the half, which began a 17-2 run as UCLA improved its record to 7-2 when trailing at the half.

"We feel that extra sense of urgency in the second half," said Love. "We don't like fighting from behind. But sometimes you have to because teams are going to bust their ass against us, because we have a bull's eye on our chests. We've done that all season, and we did that again tonight."

If this is the last game that Love plays against Mayo in college, Love can only smile as he gets on the team bus at the final won/loss record -- which now favors Love and UCLA: 2-1.

"It was fun," said Love. "He got us at our place and I got him at his and now we won tonight. If it is our last time playing each other in college, I'm happy with how it ended up."

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