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Third time appears to be a charm for new USC point guard Mike Gerrity

The Mater Dei High grad, who bounced from Pepperdine to Charlotte, N.C., to USC, was key to the Trojans' upset victory Saturday over Tennessee. He may have arrived just when the team needs him most.

December 22, 2009|By Baxter Holmes

Before Mike Gerrity played his first minute for the USC basketball team, a teammate already had dubbed him "little John Stockton."

Then came 12 points and 10 assists in a 22-point upset victory over then-No. 9-ranked Tennessee on Saturday, and maybe the comparison to a Hall of Fame NBA point guard seemed a little less outlandish.

Gerrity, it seems, often leaves very good first impressions.

At Santa Ana Mater Dei High in 2001, he became only the third freshman to start for Gary McKnight, the Monarchs' coach since 1982 -- and he had nine assists in his team's upset that season of a nationally top-ranked Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill Academy team that featured Carmelo Anthony.

At Pepperdine in 2005, Gerrity again started as a freshman, and in his collegiate debut against No. 2 Connecticut led the Waves with 19 points and four assists.

"The kid was smart and crafty," Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said afterward. "He's a good little point guard."

After Gerrity's USC debut Saturday, Trojans Coach Kevin O'Neill said he was "shocked," and Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl said he was "surprised."

Now the question is whether Gerrity and USC can make a good thing last.

USC is Gerrity's third college team in five years. He left Pepperdine after one season and Charlotte after two, becoming eligible to play for USC last Friday after sitting out in accordance with NCAA transfer rules.

Already, his time at USC hasn't gone according to plan. The 6-foot-1 guard had hoped to play his senior season for Tim Floyd, but the former Trojans coach resigned in June after allegations of NCAA rule violations.

Gerrity's reaction: "What else could happen?"

The answer: a roster gutted by NBA departures and recruits who changed their minds when Floyd left.

If there was an upside, it was that USC badly needed a playmaking guard.

"He's a true point guard," O'Neill said. "We don't have a lot of those."

Against Tennessee, USC played the up-tempo style Gerrity loves, and the Trojans tied their season high with 77 points.

USC (5-4) plays Western Michigan today in the opening round of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.

Gerrity made things "a whole lot easier on the big guys," said forward Alex Stepheson, who had 19 points and a career-high 15 rebounds against Tennessee.

USC came in averaging more than 17 turnovers and a Pacific 10 Conference-low 58.9 points a game, but even full-court pressure from the Tennessee defense didn't slow the Trojans with Gerrity running things. He beat it almost single-handedly, and twice he threw long passes for easy buckets.

That came as no surprise to McKnight. "For four years, I never had to run a press break. Never," the Mater Dei coach said. Gerrity is "such a dominating ballhandler."

Gerrity left Mater Dei as the school's all-time assist leader and with a 117-6 record as a high school player.

At Pepperdine, he was West Coast Conference freshman of the year playing for Paul Westphal, currently the Sacramento Kings' coach.

But after Gerrity's first season, Westphal was fired and replaced by Vance Walberg, whose teams tore up and down the court as the coach substituted frequently.

"There was nothing wrong with his system," Gerrity said. "It just wasn't geared toward my style of play." So he left.

Next stop: Charlotte, where he ended up splitting time with a walk-on and was again unhappy with the system.

Gerrity said that when Coach Bobby Lutz recruited him, "he talked a lot about running and pushing the ball and making plays in the open court," but what happened "never really got to that point."

"I wish he never left, but we're not bitter," said Lutz, who recently sent Gerrity a text message wishing him well at USC.

In all, Gerrity has quit a team three times, including once at Mater Dei when he and McKnight had a "miscommunication" after a game. After they talked it out the next day, Gerrity missed only one game.

Gerrity says that, despite appearances, it's not his nature to give up when things aren't going his way.

"I'm far from a quitter," he said. "I'm a competitor."

After Charlotte, Gerrity thought his basketball career might be over. Then, months later, he got a phone call from McKnight. Floyd was in his office, and he needed a point guard.

"Are you interested?" McKnight asked.

"Coach, it's USC, of course I'm interested," Gerrity said he replied.

Gerrity is thankful he will finish his college career in front of friends and family, some of whom attended Saturday's game.

O'Neill is certainly happy to have him, saying, "Even the most uneducated person could see the difference in our team when we don't have Mike Gerrity out there."

As for Gerrity's past penchant for bouncing from programs he didn't like, that's not a concern for USC.

"He can't go elsewhere now," O'Neill said. "This is it."

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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