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USC BASKETBALL FYI

USC's Nikola Vucevic gets a painful lesson in toughness

Forward is bloodied during loss to California, and it still hurts.

January 26, 2011|By Baxter Holmes

The elbow slammed into Nikola Vucevic's jaw and blood began filling his mouth. It started coming out of his nose. The USC junior forward needed a towel -- and fast.

Vucevic, head tilted back, eased onto USC's bench in the first half Saturday against California, after Golden Bears forward Harper Kamp delivered the hardest basketball blow Vucevic had yet to suffer.

He tried to move his jaw and felt a pop in his ears. He wiggled his tongue, but part of it had been bitten through. Blood kept pouring into his mouth and he kept swallowing.

The next day, Vucevic could drink only soups and smoothies. Anything salty on his tongue burned.

"It was pretty painful," he said Tuesday, still feeling sore.

His injury hurt USC just as much in the two-point loss.

Vucevic, the Pacific 10 Conference's leading rebounder (10.0) and fourth-leading scorer (16.1) played 32 minutes and scored just six points, his first single-digit scoring performance in eight games.

"It was one of those things that threw him off and he never got on track from," USC Coach Kevin O'Neill said.

But it also provided Vucevic a lesson on toughness, which, along with an occasional lack of effort, is the main knock NBA scouts have on him.

Because whether it's a baseline drive, as it was with Kamp, or a scrum for a loose ball, there will be blows -- some of them bloody -- and he will still need to play hard.

"I could've played a little harder," Vucevic admitted of his effort against California.

Killer stat

USC (11-9, 3-4 in league play) faces Arizona State (9-10, 1-6) in Tempe on Thursday. If it's a close game, it could come down to a key rebound. For USC, that could mean a loss. It has all season.

The Trojans have lost seven games by six points or fewer this season. In nearly all of them, USC has given up costly offensive rebounds late.

"It's killed us," O'Neill said.

O'Neill said the players are often fatigued by that point -- four of them are averaging more than 30 minutes a game -- and Vucevic agreed.

"We concentrate for 30 seconds, and then at the end, we forget to box out," Vucevic said.

Vucevic added that there have been miscommunications between him and senior forward Alex Stepheson on a few occasions.

But O'Neill doesn't care what the reason is.

"When it's closing time and winning time, you've got to find a way to finish the game," he said.

Etc.

Junior guard Jio Fontan said he plans to file an appeal with the NCAA for an additional season of eligibility in August. If granted, the extra season would, in essence, replace his sophomore season in 2009-10 at Fordham in which he played five games before deciding to transfer. "I want to have it, just in case," Fontan said of a potential extra season. "Whether I use it, I'm not sure, but I definitely want to get it back."?Several USC players are suffering from flu-like symptoms.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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