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USC Offense Sputters In 59-46 Loss To VCU

James Santelli |
March 16, 2011 | 11:48 p.m. PDT

Associate Sports Editor

Kevin O'Neill lost in his first Tournament appearance with the Trojans (James Santelli)
Kevin O'Neill lost in his first Tournament appearance with the Trojans (James Santelli)
In the midst of all the controversy and commotion USC head coach Kevin O'Neill has faced in the past week, he's retained his trademark straight-forwardness.

"That obviously didn't end the year the way we wanted it to," O'Neill opened his postgame press conference.

No kidding.

A 59-46 defeat at the hands of Virginia Commonwealth ends tumultuous season for O'Neill's Trojans. USC certainly didn't expect to make the NCAA Tournament after falling to a 13-12 record in mid-February, and Thursday night's loss in Dayton made it seem as though they didn't belong in the field, either.

"We just didn't play well," O'Neill said of his team. "We never got any rhythm. We had 15 turnovers. Shooting 39 percent for the game. We never really got on track."

O'Neill just scratched the surface of statistics that showed his team's poor performance. The Trojans' 46 points were the lowest all season, the 13-point margin of defeat was the worst in the school's 20-game NCAA Tournament history. The Men of Troy only put up 38 shots, and connected on just 15.

The importance of turnovers bears repeating. The Trojans committed fifteen of them, and ended up with only four assists on the night. That boils down to a 3.75-to-1 turnover-to-assist ratio for a team that averaged 0.87-to-1 on the season.

To be sure, neither team came shooting out of the gate. The first six possessions consisted of two missed field goals, two turnovers, and no offensive rebounds. USC made only one field goal in the first six minutes, while VCU started the game shooting 3-of-17 from the field. But while the Rams made strong adjustments coming out of the 22-22 halftime break, the Trojans tried to go more up-tempo and faltered.

"They came out and performed like they wanted it more," USC guard Jio Fontan said. "They got on a couple more loose balls than we did. The pace of the game was more in their favor than it was in ours."

Coach O'Neill agreed. "We tried to speed things up a little bit and it really hurt us," O'Neill said. "We needed to make sure we were as good defensively in the second half as we were in the first, and we weren't."

The pace and depth for VCU ended up being a key in the second half, as the Rams jumped out to 15-5 run in the first seven-and-a-half minutes following halftime, including two three-pointers from Joey Rodriguez, and one apiece from Jamie Skeen and Brandon Rozzell.

The Rams finished 9-of-24 from beyond the arc (compared to USC's 1-of-9), and put up 21 more shots than the Trojans. For the first time all year, USC held a team to under 60 points and didn't come out on top.

"You guys think Jay Bilas watched that game?" VCU coach Shaka Smart joked about the ESPN analyst's Selection Sunday tirade.

If Bilas did, he saw the Rams shut down USC in the second half with a strong zone defense.

"USC was making a run on us and kept getting in the lane," Smart said. "So we went to zone. It shut down their penetration and it really took them out of an aggressive mindset and they were much more on their heels offensively."

Coach Smart will take his strong defensive to Chicago to play sixth-seeded Georgetown on Friday night. The Trojans will head back to Los Angeles, with their tournament dreams dashed.


Key moment: After a series of fouls by VCU with about eight minutes left, the Trojans had cut the deficit to one point. VCU's DJ Haley was called on a curious offensive foul to give SC the ball and a chance to take the lead.

Unfortunately, the Trojans could not take advantage. With plenty of time left on the shot clock, Vucevic airballed a three-pointed to return the ball to VCU with 7:18 left.

The Rams never looked back. Ed Nixon followed up Vucevic's miss by connecting on a three-pointer of his own. That sent VCU on a 10-1 run that lasted almost six minutes.

When all was said and done, the Rams took a commanding 55-44 lead with under two minutes remaining, and Stepheson and Fontan had fouled out for SC.

Player of the Game: Jamie Skeen.

Virginia Commonwealth was guided to victory by the guy who had guided them all year long. Skeen, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, didn't disappoint on the big stage.

Despite playing only 29 minutes due to foul trouble, Skeen was the only Rams player to hit double digits with 16 points, shooting 6-of-12 from the field. Skeen hit two of his four three-point attempts, including the first shot of the second half to give VCU a lead that they would never relinquish.

The 6-foot-9 forward also helped VCU on the boards, grabbing nine rebounds and limiting the touches for All-Pac-10 selection Nikola Vucevic.

"When [Vucevic] was supposed to get the ball down low and in a scoring area," Skeen told reporters regarding VCU's defensive gameplan, "We would bring an extra big over to his side and try to make a quick decision. Even before that, we were trying to limit his touches by not letting him catch the ball at all. When they screened across, we would keep a guard sitting in his lap until a big could get on top of him."

The strategy worked. Vucevic was able to put up only five shots, his lowest total of the season, and only pulled down one offensive rebound.

"They took me out of the game," Vucevic admitted. "They had a guy on me the whole time. And they didn't let me get in my comfort zone to make plays."

Unsung Hero: Jio Fontan.

Few heroes can be found in a game where USC played so poorly. Fontan at least tried to take the game into his own hands. The Trojans' point guard was 6-of-12 from the field, when none of his teammates had more than six field goal attempts.

"I thought they were good shots. I'll take 50% (from the field) from anybody, anytime," said O'Neill when asked if Fontan was taking too many shots. "Jio tried to make things happen. I thought he was aggressive and tried to get us going.

"Nobody else seemed to get going, that's just the way it was.

Fontan, the team's second-leading scorer on the season, led the team with 14 points, committed only one turnover, and had two assists.

"Step It Up:" Donte Smith.

When VCU started raining threes to take a double-digit lead early in the second half, the Trojans needed to respond with strong outside shooting of their own. Unfortunately, the guy that USC so often relied on in the regular season to respond from beyond the arc went cold.

Smith took three shots in the first half. All threes. All misses. He then took three shots in the second half. All threes. All misses.

In his final game with the Trojans, Smith also committed four turnovers while finishing with only two assists. On a night when so many players for USC needed to step it up, Donte Smith's inability to make shots and control the ball hurt the team.

Key stat:  17 to 5. The Rams dominated on the glass, with twelve more offensive rebounds than the Trojans.

O'Neill shrugged off SC's inability to pull in offensive boards, saying "We don't win games with offensive rebounding. We just don't." However, the rebounding strength of VCU allowed them to total 21 second-chance points to USC's 8.

VCU matched up pretty evenly inside with USC's strong frontcourt, as Bradford Burgess and Jamie Skeen finished with 19 rebounds, as Stepheson and Vucevic had 24.

But the Rams got secondary rebounding, which the Trojans did not. USC only totaled 7 rebounds from their other players, while VCU had 21.

What Now?: A loss in the tournament's opening round will be a bit tough to swallow for an SC team that finished the season so well, winning six of their last eight games prior to the loss to VCU.

The Trojans' inclusion in the tournament raised a few eyebrows across the country, even as it was overshadowed in the media world by the selections of VCU and UAB. USC simply didn't take advantage of the opportunity the selection committee gave them in a tournament bid and a favorable matchup against the Rams.

Gone from this year's team are Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Simmons, forward Alex Stepheson (who was second in the conference with 9.2 rebounds per game), and guard Donte Smith (who led the team this season with 73 three-point field goals).

Still, the Trojans will have a strong nucleus heading into 2011-12, with two top scorers Nikola Vucevic (17.3 PPG) and Jio Fontan (10.4 PPG) returning, along with current freshmen Maurice Jones (who led the team in assists) and Garrett Jackson.

If the rumors of Vucevic departing for the NBA Draft after his junior season turn out to be true, USC will likely struggle next year. The Trojans seem likely to make another run to the Tournament if Vucevic and his 22 double-doubles come back next season. If he doesn't, it could be a long winter at the Galen Center, as no other returning players average more than three rebounds per game.

Final Thoughts: Even after a tough first round loss, Kevin O'Neill had some kind words for his team.

"I'm really proud of our team," O'Neill told the media after the game. "We have endured many, many things over two years of sanctions. Guys being hurt. Guys leaving. Guys graduating, losing four out of six guys from a 16-win team last season."

O'Neill praised his departing senior class, as well. "When it looked like our season was dead in the water," O'Neill said, "These guys came back and played hard and did their job.

"It's unfortunate we didn't play well tonight in the tournament. But we did get to the tournament, which says a lot about our team and a lot about our future."


Follow along with all of Neon Tommy's NCAA Tournament Coverage.

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James Santelli is also a contributor for Pittsburgh Sports Report. To reach him, click here. Follow him on Twitter, @JamesSantelli.

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