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USC BASKETBALL

Trojans' formula works against Arizona

USC builds an early lead, forces the Wildcats into poor shots, and holds on to win, 56-50.

January 01, 2010|By Baxter Holmes

USC Coach Kevin O'Neill coughed as he left the news conference following his team's 56-50 win in its Pacific 10 conference opener against Arizona on Thursday.

He was sick, kind of. No swine flu. No fever. No pox of any kind.

"I'm sick of watching our team on offense," he said, half-kidding.

A dose of his team's defense should be enough to cure what ails him, especially since the grinding style the Trojans played helped overcome a wretched night by savior point guard Mike Gerrity in front of 4,823 at the Galen Center.

"Mike played awful," O'Neill said of his guard, who finished with four points, two assists and five turnovers. "That was his worst performance by far. But the guy deserves a mulligan on some of this stuff. He's playing so many minutes."

Gerrity, who joined the team Dec. 18, came into the game leading USC in scoring (14.8 points) and averaging 38 minutes, which is what he played against Arizona. But against the Wildcats (6-7), he never seemed comfortable, and it showed on consecutive possessions in the second half.

On the first, he fumbled the ball away and Arizona scored a fastbreak layup.

On the next, he airballed a three-pointer.

"Everybody has them," he said of his poor night.

Thankfully, USC's defense, which came into the game with the fifth-best scoring defense in the nation (56.3), doesn't. The win was the seventh straight for USC (9-4) and had a similar flavor to the last six: Build a lead early, control the tempo, force the opponent into bad shots and hold on late.

The lead was there, a 27-10 margin with 6:44 in the first half. The tempo held Arizona to its second-lowest first-half output (21 points) of the season. There were numerous bad shots, eight of which USC blocked. And as for holding on late, USC managed that largely on mid-range jump shots from seniors Marcus Johnson and Dwight Lewis, who led the team with 14 points each.

"Next time we play USC, we have to be well versed in playing that style," said Arizona Coach Sean Miller, whose team was 15 for 50 from the floor (30%), had 15 turnovers and saw star guard Nic Wise go two for 10 from the floor with seven points.

USC finished 21 for 49 from the floor (43%), but only one of nine from beyond the arc. "We're not an offensive juggernaut," O'Neill said.

After the grinding win, Lewis compared the squad's effort to that of teams in the last three years that made the NCAA tournament.

"The last three tournament teams, we didn't play our best every game," he said. "It's hard to bring your A-game every game, especially against teams in the Pac-10. But that's what we were able to do, just pull out wins, grind out wins, especially when we didn't play our best.

"I'm not saying this team is a tournament team right now, but that's what we did in the past, and it's been good for us."

This game had built-in drama before the players took the floor, since Arizona's Derrick Williams, Solomon Hill and Lamont Jones were a part of USC's 2009 recruiting class but bailed when the NCAA started investigating the program because of allegations of violations under former coach Tim Floyd.

Early on, the crowd booed any time their names were announced.

"It was kind of funny," said Trojans forward Nikola Vucevic, who said he knew all three.

USC got the last laugh: Its three former signees shot four for 14 and combined for eight turnovers.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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