In closing, USC proves a winner

Kevin O’Neill isn’t the sentimental type. Yes, he coached at Tennessee, had fun, a nasty exit and hadn’t returned here until Tuesday.

He. Didn’t. Care. He cared only about his team’s losing close games.

USC fell to Bradley, Nebraska and, three days earlier, Kansas by a combined five points. Had USC won, its record entering Tuesday would have been 9-2. But it wasn’t.

O’Neill pounded that into his players’ heads. And all through their fistfight against the No. 19 Volunteers, he urged, “Just hang in, let’s make them make a play to beat us.”


In the end, the Volunteers couldn’t.

Guard Tobias Harris missed a deep three-point jumper on a play that began with 3.5 seconds left to deliver USC a 65-64 win, its second straight upset against Tennessee (7-3) and first road win in seven attempts dating to last season.

“We finally closed out a game,” O’Neill said.

It’s USC’s second win against a ranked, orange-clad squad in December. The first was against No. 19 Texas on Dec. 5.

USC (7-5) almost lost as Harris’ shot looked true, and as it sailed, USC senior forward Alex Stepheson feared deja vu after Kansas guard Josh Selby’s late three-point shot in the Jayhawks’ two-point win a few days earlier.

“Not again,” Stepheson thought.

Not again was right, but in a back-and-forth game before a roaring 19,030 at Thompson-Boling Arena, USC’s win, which remained in reach with O’Neill’s patented aggressive defense and a patient offense, took composure and clutch play.

And no shots were more clutch than an NBA-range three-point heave by senior guard Donte Smith over three defenders with two minutes 13 seconds left to put USC up, 65-60.

Two Tennessee players then made two free throws each. The lead was one. USC failed to score with 15 seconds, but pressured Tennessee when it got the rebound.

Following a timeout, USC hoped to contest the shot.

It did. Harris, who led Tennessee with 14 points, missed. Victory.

“If you had told me we’d lost to KU by a possession and we’d win here, I wouldn’t have believed it when we scheduled this,” O’Neill said.

Both games were close because of junior guard Jio Fontan, who became eligible for the Kansas game after sitting out a year in accordance with transfer rules.

Against Tennessee, he scored 13 points, teaming with guards Maurice Jones (15 points), Bryce Jones (11 points) and Smith (six points) to surprise the Volunteers with an effective outside game. Fontan said that was the plan.

“One thing that threw those guys off was we switched our strategy up,” he said.

Though USC didn’t get as much as usual from its big men, it did capitalize on Tennessee’s mistakes. In fact, in the points-off-turnovers category, USC held a 27-10 advantage.

“That’s probably what killed us,” said Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl, whose team has lost three consecutive games for the second time in his six seasons here.

So far, the Pacific 10 Conference has compiled a 4-12 nonconference record against ranked teams, but USC has two of those wins. “A lot of Pac-10 teams will want to beat us since we’ve beat some ranked teams,” Stepheson said.

But before Pac-10 play, USC has a quick turnaround Thursday against Lehigh, a team that made the NCAA tournament last season.

As for O’Neill, who coached the Volunteers from 1994-97, his return featured handshakes, hugs, lunches, dinners, laughs and beers with many old friends. He was booed when introduced and cheered when he earned a technical foul for arguing with a referee in the first half.

And when the buzzer sounded, more friends wished him well and his game-face frown turned to a smile. He had just shown his old team how he used to win here.