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BID: USC Wins Tight One At No. 18 Tennessee

Shotgun Spratling |
December 21, 2010 | 10:31 p.m. PST

Associate Sports Editor

USC's Alex Stepheson, Jio Fontan and Maurice Jones led the way against Tennessee. (Matt Patterson)
USC's Alex Stepheson, Jio Fontan and Maurice Jones led the way against Tennessee. (Matt Patterson)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The USC men's basketball team held off No. 18 Tennessee 65-64 at Thompson-Boling Arena Tuesday night.

Using a balanced attack and a stingy defense, USC got its first road win of the season, upsetting Tennessee in front of 19,030 fans.

The Trojans had four players score in double-figures, led by Maurice Jones' 15 points, four assists, four steals and four rebounds.

-- BREAKING IT DOWN --

Key moment: Tennessee had the final shot of the game with an opportunity to knock off the Trojans and potentially kill their chance at an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. With 3.5 seconds remaining, the Volunteers inbounded the ball to freshman star Tobias Harris.

However, Marcus Simmons' defensive pressure forced Harris to catch the ball near halfcourt. Harris dribbled twice to his right before firing up a shot from about five feet behind the 3-point line.

"A lot of things went through my head. It was like watching a movie,” USC guard Jio Fontan said. “It was in slow [motion]."

The shot was directly on line, but clanked off the back rim as the final buzzer sounded.

“It was just a big sigh of relief. I was ready to take off my jersey and go crazy,” Fontan said. “But I just had to smile and get out of there with a ‘W.’”

Game changer: In just his second game as a USC Trojan, Jio Fontan showed why coach Kevin O'Neill claims he is the team's best player. 

Fontan scored 13 points and made six of 10 shots from the field in 30 minutes of action. He added four assists and three steals as well, but the biggest asset he brings to the team is added depth. Fontan gives O'Neill more options. Point guard Maurice Jones no longer has to handle the ball on every possession.

Fontan can score on any given possession. He showed his flash on a slashing drive through the lane in the second half when he floated up a left-handed finger roll while being fouled. Turned in midair, Fontan was looking into the crowd when the ball left his fingertips, but it swished through the net without even touching the rim. He then knocked down the free throw to complete the three-point play.

Player of the game: Maurice Jones was everywhere against the Vols. The smallest man on the court at 5-foot-7, Jones had the biggest game. He filled the stat sheet, scoring a game-high 15 points on 5-of-11 shooting, including 3-of-5 on 3-pointers.

He also had a game-high four steals, picking the pocket of Tennessee big men several times. Throw in four assists and even four rebounds, and you have an individual effort that had even the opposing coach talking.

"That kid Mo Jones had a phenomenal game," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "He hit some really big shots."

Play of the game: USC's leading scorer, Nikola Vucevic, struggled mightily all game. He finished 2-of-6 from the field, recording just four points and one rebound. He was in foul trouble throughout the game and fouled out in the final minute of the contest. 

However, Vucevic made a critical play just before fouling out.

After a pair of Scotty Hopson free throws cut USC's lead to 65-62 with 1:59 remaining, USC came down and wasted clock. Donte Smith got an open look in the corner, but the ball bounced off the back of the rim and appeared headed for two Tennessee players who were in the area.

Knowing he didn't have a chance to grab the ball himself, Vucevic got his fingertips on the ball and swatted it out toward halfcourt where Maurice Jones corralled it and re-set the offense.

USC failed to get a basket, but used all 35 seconds of the shot clock. Vucevic's tap out helped the Trojans burn a full minute off the clock.

Unsung hero: Freshman Bryce Jones had been struggling. After scoring in double figures in six of the first eight games, he had been held under 10 points the last three weeks. He has seen his minutes decline during Donte Smith's recent hot streak and has had to adjust to coming off the bench since Jio Fontan became eligible.

It's been a difficult transition for Jones, but he found his confidence (and his stroke Tuesday night), coming off the bench to lead all reserves with 11 points. He also made three of his four 3-pointers

Key stat: USC forced 18 Tennessee turnovers, including six from its struggling star, Scotty Hopson.

Hopson shot just 1-of-5 from the floor, making it his third consecutive off night. When he wasn't missing shots, Hopson was turning the ball over. He was called for four travels -- three in the first half alone.

Sideline Moves: Kevin O'Neill may not have wanted to, but he was forced to go to a small lineup with Nikola Vucevic in foul trouble. O' Neill used his smallest lineup of the season, playing three guards with an average height of 5-foot-10 -- 5-foot-7 Maurice Jones, 5-foot-11 Donte Smith and 6-foot Jio Fontan -- at the same time.

“We have no choices. This investigation devastated our team. So we have what we have. We have eight guys that we play,” O’Neill said. “When Nick got in foul trouble, we just had to play small. We started running all these dribble hand-offs. We hadn't really done that, but we said ‘Hey, we’re stuck doing it so let’s go.’”

O'Neill also picked up a first half technical foul when there was no whistle when Smith slammed to the court chasing a loose ball. It was his first technical foul as USC's head coach.

Where They Stand: USC desperately needed a road win. Getting one against a ranked opponent makes it even better.

Sitting at 7-5, USC knows it still has to do some work to get considered by the NCAA Tournament selection committee (if they fail to win the conference tournament).

The Trojans now head home with their heads high after beating Tennessee and narrowly losing to Kansas. Considering they were 4-4 before beating then No. 19-Texas and Northern Arizona prior to this two game eastern swing, O'Neill has the be happy with the progress his team has made.

Getting back Jio Fontan has already shown its impact (much as what happened last season when Mike Gerrity was cleared to play just before Christmas). O'Neill said without Fontan his team would have likely lost by 15-20 points to both Kansas and Tennessee. Instead, they split with a pair of teams that started the previous week ranked in the top 10.

The Trojans have to take care of business Thursday when they host Lehigh, an NCAA Tournament team last season. USC can't afford a letdown in its final non-conference game of the season.

To reach Shotgun Spratling, click here, or follow him on Twitter @BlueWorkhorse.

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