Game Notes: Tennessee at USC
Five rebounds in a half for TENN?
Seeing was believing.
Tennessee made its way out West on Saturday afternoon to take on host USC and the Volunteers brought plenty of that southern swagger with them on the road trip. Truth be told, confidence should have been high considering they entered the game ranked No. 9 in the country by the Associated Press.
Plus, the Trojans didn‘t pose much of threat. At least, that’s how things appeared.
Low and behold, USC came to play, jumping out to a 13-point halftime lead and never letting up the rest of the way en route to a 77-55 victory at Galen Center. And with the improbable win, the season’s first big-time upset of a big-time program by a big-time underdog is in the books.
For the record, the Trojan faithful, all 4,523 of them, did not storm the court.
*** A quick stop in the media room before the opening tip reveals that USC will have Mike Gerrity ready and available. The transfer, via Pepperdine and Charlotte, was cleared to play by the NCAA on Friday and the timing couldn’t be better given the fact that the Trojans will need a reliable point guard against the Vols, who love to put pressure on the ball from baseline to baseline.
*** Alex Stepheson is focused during warm-ups, although you can’t help noticing the USC junior shooting the occasional glance toward the Tennessee side, looking in the direction of Renaldo Woolridge. The two have history. They were high school teammates at nearby Harvard-Westlake in Studio City. “Yeah, I talked to Renaldo this week, sent him a couple of texts,’’ Stepheson said. “I told him that we were going to beat his guys.’’ Wonder what the two talked about after the game…
*** Bruce Pearl is a piece of work, in a good sense, of course. The coach of the Vols is a ham, always the center of attention. He‘s telling jokes, laughing, looking as relaxed as can be on the sidelines. Following the player introductions, he flips the switch and puts on his game face.
*** In the opening minute, Scotty Hopson is aggressive, stepping in front of a pass, stealing the ball and going coast to coast for the layup as the Vols get on the board first. If the Trojans continue being careless with the rock and the turnovers begin mounting, this one could get ugly, in a hurry.
*** Stepheson starts to assert himself. At 6-9 and 235-plus pounds, that could spell trouble for Tennessee. He hits a short fade away jumper, then grabs a board and follows with a layup. Minutes later, his shot is altered by Wayne Chism but the refs call goaltending to give USC a five-point lead at 11:20.
*** Hopson is left alone out on the perimeter and he knocks down a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 11-8 at 9:08. Remarkably enough, the basket is just the third field goal of the game for the Vols.
*** Gerrity gets things going. The senior is at his creative best inside the paint, first scoring on a layup before finding Stepheson underneath for two easy buckets. Shortly thereafter, Gerrity spots Marcus Johnson and Nikola Vucevic open for a pair of three-pointers. All of a sudden, the Trojans are up 27-19 with 2:11 before halftime, prompting Pearl to call a timeout in an effort to stop the momentum.
*** Nothing Tennessee does seems to work. Nothing at all. Gerrity dishes out assists to Dwight Lewis and Johnson. For good measure, Stepheson challenges a Bobby Maze three-pointer that fails to find the bottom of the net just before the buzzer sounds and USC takes a 33-20 at the break.
*** Looking at the stats over the course of the first 20 minutes of play, one number stands out more so than the rest: 28.6 percent, the Vols shooting percentage from the field. Not sure things can much worse. It should be noted that the Trojans knock down 61.9 percent of their shots.
*** Things are bound to turn around for Tennessee. Well, maybe not. Cameron Tatum is fouled, misses both free-throws, but USC is called for a lane violation, giving the sophomore a chance to redeem himself. Can’t believe it, honestly, Tatum throws up a third brick at 19:11.
*** Hopson has had enough. He steals the ball and heads down the court with bad intentions. Wisely, Lewis doesn’t get in his way, otherwise, he would’ve been dunked on by Hopson, who unleashes a thunderous two-handed slam. The Vols trail by 14 points with 18:36 left.
*** Facing relentless pressure underneath his own basket, Gerrity throws a length of the court pass to Stepheson for a breakaway dunk as the Trojans take a 44-28 lead at the 15:13 mark. When all is said and done, Stepheson has 19 points and a career-high 15 rebounds.
*** Lewis takes over, essentially ruining in hopes the Vols might have had at making a comeback. He hits two jumpers, is fouled on a three-pointer, and subsequently, makes three free-throws. A steal and a dunk on the other end to extends the advantage to 19 points with 8:52 remaining.
*** Hopson scores a couple of meaningless baskets to make it a 73-53 game at 1:46. Thing is, he doesn’t receive much, if any, help along the way. All told, Hopson finishes the game with 16 points.
*** Fittingly, Lewis knocks down an outside shot before time expires. He ends up scoring 15 of his game-high 21 points after intermission. USC pulls off the shocker, 77-55, to hand Tennessee its worst loss since Pearl took over as head honcho before the ’05-06 season.
*** Kevin O’Neill was pleased with the result. At the same time, the first-year coach of the Trojans kept things in perspective. “This is a huge win for us. I couldn’t be more proud of our guys,’’ he said. “Hopefully, we can build on this. For today, our guys should savor the win, enjoy it and not get arrested, or anything like that.’’
*** Gerrity, a Southern California native, played well in front of family and friends, finishing with 12 points, 10 assists and 5 rebounds in 37 minutes of action. He did enough to impress Pearl, who said: “They’re a completely different team with him running the show. His play was a huge factor in their dominating us.”