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USC falls to Virginia Commonwealth, 59-46

USC’s thin lineup was thinned out Wednesday night here, as the Trojans lost player after player late in their first-round NCAA tournament game against Virginia Commonwealth.

Making a comeback without bodies seemed impossible, and the Trojans indeed could not, falling to the Rams, 59-46.

VCU (24-11) earns the No. 11 seed in the Southwest Regional and will advance to play Georgetown (21-10) at 6 p.m. PDT Friday at the United Center in Chicago.

Photos: USC vs. Virginia Commonwealth

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USC’s 2010-11 season ends with a record of 19 wins and 15 losses in the first game back for USC Coach Kevin O’Neill after he was suspended one game last week for an altercation.

Things started to look bad for USC late in the game when USC had three players on the floor with four fouls. Then, USC senior guard Marcus Simmons fouled out with 4:10 left, scoring seven points on three-for-five shooting in his final game at USC. And junior guard Jio Fontan fouled out not long after, with 3:54, having scored 14 points in six for 12 shooting.

With 1:58 left, Maurice Jones made a layup to make it 55-46, VCU, but there wasn’t much else the Trojans could do. VCU made just three three-point shots in the first half, but made six in the second.

VCU shot 20 for 59 (33.9%) from the floor; USC shot 15 for 38 (39.5%). USC missed eight of its nine attempts from three-point range; VCU made nine of its 24 attempts from deep.

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USC was able VCU’s lead to one with 7:51 left, but the Rams responded with a 7-0 run to go back up, 51-43.

2011 NCAA men’s basketball championship brackets

The Trojans struggled at the free-throw line, missing six of 10 down at one point. For the game, USC shot 15 for 25 from the free-throw line.

Another low point for USC was the shooting of senior guard Donte Smith, who missed all six of his three-point attempts and finished with just one point. Yet another low point for the Trojans was its turnovers. USC had 15 of them that led to 19 points off turnovers for VCU. The Rams, meanwhile, had nine turnovers that led to eight points off turnovers for USC.

And yet another low point for USC was second-chance points. VCU had 21 of those while USC had only eight.

Junior forward Nikola Vucevic finished with 11 points on three-for-five shooting and 14 rebounds, his 22nd double-double of the season, in what may be his last game at USC. He may go pro after the season.

Vucevic fouled out with 29 seconds to play.

USC senior forward Alex Stepheson scored four points and grabbed 10 rebounds.

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USC trails Virginia Commonwealth, 42-36 with a little under 10 minutes left, and the Trojans can attribute that deficit to its sluggish start and to the second half.

Senior forward Alex Stepheson turned the ball over on the Trojans’ first play and then junior guard Jio Fontan picked up his second foul on a reach.

On the other end, VCU senior forward Jamie Skeen knocked down a three-point jumper from the left wing to give the Rams a 25-22 lead with 19:22 left. Things started going downhill for USC from there.

Trojans senior guard Marcus Simmons picked up his third foul with 16:01 in the second half, sending him to the bench.

And not long after that, VCU guard Joey Rodriguez hit a three-point shot from the left wing to give the Rams their largest lead of the night to that point, 28-24, with 15:45 left.

USC Coach Kevin O’Neill called a timeout after that. He needed one. The Trojans offense looked terrible, having missed four of its first five shots after halftime. But his timeout didn’t help. Things kept getting worse for USC. Freshman guard Maurice Jones hit a three-point jumper with 15:11 left to make it 28-27, VCU, but Rodriguez made a three-point shot on VCU’s next possession to boost its lead back to four.

Jones then turned it over when he drove deep in the lane and passed it back outside after he had already jumped. Rodriguez stole the ball and then fed it to VCU senior guard Brandon Rozzell, who made a three-point shot from the left wing with 14:31 left.

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O’Neill called another timeout, his team trailing, 34-27, with 14:25 left.

Out of the timeout, USC tried to get the ball to junior forward Nikola Vucevic, but he has been neutralized all night by double-teams, and he was again on that possession.

USC has some serious issues with foul trouble. Simmons picked up his fourth foul with 13:19 left eight seconds after checking back into the game. Stepheson has three, as does Vucevic.

Simmons left after picking up his fourth foul. Not sure when we’ll see him again. Meanwhile, the Trojans’ offense hadn’t scored since Jones’ three-point jumper. And three more points from VCU capped a 9-0 run that put the Rams ahead 37-27 with 12:48 left.

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USC finally got a basket with 12:23 left, ending a nearly three-minute drought, when Fontan made a layup.

That sparked a quick 7-0 USC run, but VCU didn’t wilt, hitting two quick shots, the latter a three-point jumper by Brandenberg, to go back up, 42-34, with 10:33 left.

Vucevic knocked down a pair of free throws, but then he picked up his third foul with 9:32 left.

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We have a low-scoring, close, grinding game at halftime here, which is just what USC wanted, what Virginia Commonwealth hoped to avoid and what every fan watching at home who’s hoping to hear broadcaster Gus Johnson give a thrilling game-ending call prayed for.

The Trojans and Rams are tied, 22-22, in the first-round game of the NCAA tournament on Wednesday night.

It’s the third-lowest first half total for USC this season. Its lowest is 19 against Oregon on Feb. 12. It’s close to the lowest total for VCU, whose first-half low this season is 17 points at Richmond on Dec. 11. USC is shooting eight for 20 from the floor (40%); VCU is shooting nine for 32 (28.1%).

The three-point shooting Rams are also shooting three for 12 from beyond the arc, not a good omen for them, but, then again, the positive for VCU is that despite its poor offensive play, it’s still a tight ballgame.

On a side note, the referees are blowing the whistle at every opportunity on both teams. There have been 15 combined foul calls so far.

USC is being led by guards Marcus Simons and Jio Fontan, who each have six points. Jamie Skeen has a game-high eight points for VCU. The Trojans are getting out-rebounded 22-17 and it trails in the second-chance-points category, 10 to four. But USC has shot 10 free throws, making six, while VCU has attempted and made just one.

VCU tied the game on a three-point shot by freshman guard Rob Brandenberg with 48 seconds left. Brandenberg’s shot came after USC forward Nikola Vucevic blocked VCU senior guard Ed Nixon two seconds prior. The Rams made a nice 7-0 run near the midway point of the first half when USC seemed to be taking control.

After the Rams’ Jamie Skeen knocked down a three-point jumper from just to the right of the top of the key, VCU went straight into a press and picked up a steal that Bradford Burgess, who has six points, laid in the basket to cap the run, giving VCU a 15-13 lead with 7:35 left.

USC is making a strong effort to get Alex Stepheson the ball and let him post up his man. It’s a tad unusual considering USC hasn’t done that recently, if at all. He has four points and eight rebounds.

And, also strangely, Simmons, the Pac-10 defensive player of the year who averages just five points a game, has continued to play good on offense after scoring a career-high 20 points in his last game against Arizona.

It’s good for USC that Simmons is picking up the slack because Vucevic, who came in averaging 17.3 points and 10.2 rebounds, has just four points. He has attempted just two shots.

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The Trojans started off with a case of the jitters.

Senior guard Donte Smith missed the Trojans first shot, a three-point jumper, and USC missed four of its first five shots overall.

VCU also came out a bit jittery, missing 12 of its first 14 shots, making it clear both teams are a little too amped up tonight.

But USC started to find a little bit of rhythm just before the 10-minute mark here in Dayton, where the Trojans lead the Rams, 11-8, in this first-round NCAA tournament game.

Early on, it became clear that Virginia Commonwealth’s man-to-man defense was flustering USC.

The Rams weren’t allowing any easy passes from the Trojans’ guards to their two 6-foot-10 forwards, Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic.

USC’s first basket came with 17 minutes, 26 seconds when junior guard Jio Fontan drove for a layup after whatever offense USC was trying to run obviously wasn’t working.

After Smith missed his second three-point shot, wide open from the corner, USC Coach Kevin O’Neill substituted him for freshman guard Maurice Jones, who started USC’s first 25 games and checked into this one with 15:28 left.

From then on, USC went on an 8-3 run, hitting four of five shots from the field.

On defense, USC’s size is bothering the rather small VCU frontline, which is mostly 6-foot-9 senior Jamie Skeen. Stepheson had a nasty block off the backboard with 14:35 left on a layup attempt by VCU guard Joey Rodriguez.

And overall, USC is doing what it needs by playing strong defense through its early offensive struggles.

More importantly, USC is controlling the tempo, not allowing the Rams to run-and-gun, as they are accustomed. USC has also held VCU, a high-volume three-point shooting team, to one-of-four shooting from beyond the arc.

Pre-game analysis

USC is out to prove it’s not just happy to be here a season after a postseason ban.

Virginia Commonwealth is out to prove it belongs just days after many said it didn’t.

Despite the chips on their shoulders, both teams should play with the jitters for the first few minutes of Wednesday night’s first-round NCAA tournament game here.

USC Coach Kevin O’Neill has told his players that if they play lockdown defense through the first five to ten minutes, they’ll play through early struggles.

He’s right, too, because any time USC’s defense plays well, the Trojans feed off that and play much better on offense.

For the Rams, hitting a few shots, namely three-point jumpers, will help get them in a rhythm. And if they’re able to force some turnovers with their full-court, trapping defense, that will help a lot, too.

2011 men’s NCAA tournament interactive bracket

Once both teams become comfortable, it will be interesting to see how VCU’s aggressive man-to- man defense, which it plays 70% of the time, affects USC. The Trojans have struggled against zone defenses all season, so they’re certainly lucky and thankful to be playing a team that plays more man-to-man. That said, expect the Trojans to pound the ball down low to 6-foot-10 forwards Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic. When the Rams play their 1-2-2 zone defense, which they’ll do 30% of the time, the Trojans might have trouble, but USC has also fared better against zone defenses lately with guards Jio Fontan, Donte Smith and Maurice Jones having made more shots.

Rams senior forward Jamie Skeen will guard Vucevic, but O’Neill expects VCU to double-team Vucevic when he catches the ball. It makes sense that the Rams would since Vucevic struggled quite a bit against double-teams in his last two games. For Vucevic to play better, he needs to establish his inside game first and then step outside to hit some jumpers. That will help him get in a rhythm, and rhythm is a big part of his success.

VCU’s offense is intent on shooting a lot of three-point shots, and it will try to spread the floor and not allow USC’s man-to-man defense to “shrink” toward the basket.

This will require a lot defensively of the Trojans’ guards. They’ll have to not only deny passes, contest shots and not allow dribble drives, but they’ll have to be ready for long rebounds, which often happens on missed three-point shots.

As the game wears on, it’s almost a guarantee that VCU will play up to nine or ten players and try to wear down USC, which plays just six players.

An interesting matchup, aside of the 6-foot-9 Skeen versus the 6-foot-10 Vucevic, will be VCU’s Bradford Burgess against USC’s Marcus Simmons. Burgess is a 6-foot-6 guard that averages 14 points and is a key part of VCU’s offense. Simmons is also 6-foot-6 and is among the best defenders in the country, winning Pac-10 defensive player of the year honors this season.

USC is 13-0 when it holds its opponent to fewer than 60 points and 11-1 when Alex Stepheson records a double-double. Both of those are good numbers to focus on.

But at the end of the day, it all comes down to tempo. USC wants to grind VCU down; VCU wants to engage USC in a track meet.

Whichever team does what they want should win.


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