As they had in the schools’ first meeting this season, the Bruins rallied from 10 points down and pulled out a tight one, making everybody realize how close a year really is. It was UCLA 70, USC 65, the last go-ahead points coming with 4 minutes to go in the middle of a five-point play produced by Josh Shipp’s offensive-rebounding hustle, Shipp’s tip-in basket and a Lodrick Stewart foul and technical. Next year? “It can be better than this?” Bruins coach Ben Howland said. “It’s pretty intense right now.” The second-ranked Bruins found a way to win. The 19th-ranked Trojans found a way to lose. Why wait till next year? If USC and the UCLA-USC basketball rivalry are a season away, waiting for O.J. Mayo to step out of a limo at the Galen Center, you could have fooled the sellout crowd Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion. Everybody tried to overhype this as the greatest indoor Bruins-Trojans game since Richard Nixon was president. And it darned near lived up to the billing. On razor-thin margins of one point in January and fivethis time, the Bruins hold first place in the Pac-10 by 1 games. The Trojans just fell from a tie for second with Washington State into fourth, two games out with six to play. With the conference lead on the line, this game went up on the marquee as the most important L.A. showdown since 1971. Now it goes up as the most important until 2008, when Mayo will be in cardinal and gold and Kevin Love will be in powder blue and gold. Of course, a big-time UCLA-USC basketball game is a rarity only to those who aren’t old enough to know their Dan Anderson from their Dwight “Lightning” Anderson, their Wayne Carlander from their Bruins car scandal, and their Kenny Fields from their Nell & John Wooden Court. It happens every few years, and every time it’s dressed up as the birth of a serious L.A. hoops rivalry. Starting with Wooden’s national championship run, there have been 26 games between the schools in a season when both were good (loosely defined here as meaning both made the NCAA Tournament, were nationally ranked, or won 20games). Since the 1970s, when the Bruins won all 10 of those meetings, they had gone 9-7 before Wednesday, so it’s not as if these things haven’t been competitive. For benchmarks, there’s the year the most was at stake – 1971, when the Trojans’ only two losses were to UCLA, costing them the tournament trip that went only to the conference champion. Surely the Trojans were on the verge of big things. I’ll save you looking it up: The ’70s turned out not to belong to them after all. And there’s the year the rivalry appeared the most fierce and promising – 1985, when the Trojans won in two overtimes at the Sports Arena and in four OTs at Pauley, on their way to a Pac-10 co-title and a first-round tournament loss while UCLA finished strong and won the NIT. The Trojans were on the verge again. It was six more years before their next winning season. Anyway, this game, played in front of a Pauley sellout, including old rivals named Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis, marked perhaps the latest in the calendar that the Trojans played the Bruins with any kind of prize on the line. So Westwood girded for intracity battle, and students camped outside Pauley 48hours before tip-off, according to the Daily Bruin. The campus papers put it all in context by harkening all the way back to the Jan.13 game, in which the Bruins rallied to win on Arron Afflalo’s jumper with four seconds on the clock. The Daily Bruin called it an “epic finish,” and the Daily Trojan quoted Nick Young as saying Afflalo “took the life out of me.” Life is for the living. Epic finishes are in the eye of the student section. They went a little quiet in the kids’ seats across from the benches when the Bruins gave the ball away four times in the first four minutes against the league’s No. 1 shooting defense, the Trojans made nine of their first 11 shots against the No. 4 shooting defense, and USC led 20-10. The Bruins didn’t get ahead until it was 50-48 with under six minutes to play, after a Darren Collison steal led to an Afflalo breakaway dunk. Dwight Lewis’ bank shot put the Trojans back in front under with five minutes left. Then Shipp followed his own misses, scored and made a free throw, and Afflalo made the two shots for the technical. The five-point sequence made it 55-52. Fivepoints also was the winning margin. “This is the type of game you’d expect,” Afflalo said after the Bruins used a 31-5foul-shot advantage to overcome the Trojans’ 53.8-44.9 percent edge from the floor. “In past years, maybe you’d expect us to pull away. Not this year, with the weapons they have, the leadership they have.” Next year? It’s closer than you think. Kevin Modesti’s column appears in the Daily News three days a week. [email protected] (818) 713-3616 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!