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USC'S UPSET HAS MEANING TROJANS KEEP HEAT ON CARDINAL USC 59, STANFORD 56.

Byline: Ramona Shelburne Staff Writer

The margin of victory was the same 364 days ago, and Stanford's ranking in the top 25 was nearly identical.

But there is one critical difference between USC's 59-56 upset of No. 6 Stanford on Sunday at the Sports Arena and the Trojans' 75-72 upset of then fifth-ranked Stanford last season: This time it meant something.

``It's pretty nice to play Stanford when it means something,'' USC coach Chris Gobrecht said. ``We've played them a lot lately where it didn't mean anything.''

Sunday's victory gives USC (10-7, 7-2) a weekend sweep in the Bay Area, also having beaten Cal, and keeps them in the race for the Pacific-10 Conference title.

The Trojans are one game behind co-leaders Stanford (15-3, 8-1) and Arizona (16-4, 8-1) and one game ahead of fourth-place Arizona State (12-6, 6-3).

USC hasn't been in the hunt for the conference title this late since the 1996-97 season, when it opened 11-2 before dropping three of its final five games.

Since that season, which also was USC's last NCAA Tournament appearance, the Trojans have struggled to find team chemistry and blend their copious talent.

But in the final eight minutes of Sunday's victory, after trailing by 12 points in the second half, USC finally found the right mix.

``This year, nobody is scoring off the charts but everyone is getting a little bit,'' said USC senior Ebony Hoffman, who finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and four steals. ``Everyone is coming to play and not a second is wasted on the floor.''

Hoffman was the only player to score in double figures for the Trojans, but nine of the 11 players USC used in the game scored.

Senior guard Jessica Cheeks and sophomore Mehan Gnekow scored the most important points of the game.

Gnekow gave the Trojans their first lead in over 15 minutes with a layup and foul shot to make it 55-54.

Stanford went back ahead by one on the next possession on a jumper by Nicole Powell, who finished with 29 points and 12 rebounds, but shot only 7 of 21 from the floor.

But Cheeks put USC up for good with a layup in transition with 1:01 remaining.

Powell, who single-handedly built Stanford's 12-point lead by scoring 13 points in a 2 1/2 minute-span midway through the second half, was not in the game for Cheeks' layup because of a sprained right ankle.

Powell left the game with 1:26 to play and returned with 23 seconds left. However, both Powell and Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer acknowledged the momentum had swung to USC before her injury.

``They pushed us out of our comfort zone, but on the other side, we didn't respond well to their pressure,'' said Powell, a two-time first-team All-American widely expected to be one of the first three players selected in this spring's WNBA draft.

``It's not like this (loss) is going to kill our season or stop our momentum going through the rest of the Pac-10 season, but it's kind of frustrating because every game we've lost has been close and we made the same mistakes.''

Stanford's only other losses have come to No. 2 Tennessee, which will likely move atop the polls this week after beating top-ranked Duke on Saturday, and then No. 3 Texas Tech.

After the game, Gobrecht said USC's victory also was important because if Stanford had gone undefeated in conference, it would appear to the NCAA selection committee that the Pac-10 was weak outside of the Cardinal.

``It had to happen,'' Gobrecht said. ``I'm not taking anything away from Stanford, I have a lot of respect for them. But it's good for everybody that they lost.''

--UCLA 67, California 66: Nikki Blue's layup with 1.7 seconds to play capped a dramatic second-half comeback for UCLA (9-9, 4-5) in front of 2,169 at Pauley Pavilion.

Blue led three players in double figures with 19 for UCLA. Freshman Noelle Quinn had 18 points and six steals and Lisa Willis had 16 points and five steals.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

USC's Rometra Craig celebrates USC's upset over No. 6 Stanford at the Sports Arena on Sunday.

Gus Ruelas/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 26, 2004
Words:701
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