If senior guard Dwight Lewis is to be the team leader and go-to scorer for the USC men’s basketball team, coach Kevin O’Neill and the Trojans will be expecting performances like this all year.
Lewis led the Trojans (1-0) with a game-high 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting and added three rebounds in the Trojans’ 77-67 victory over UC Riverside at the Galen Center Tuesday night.
After the Trojans lost four of their five starters from last season, Lewis was expected to take the role of the Trojan’s leader — and in the first game of his final season, Lewis delivered.
Lewis hit on his first three attempts from the field, helping USC sprint to an early 28-11 lead midway through the first half. The Trojans gave some ground back to the Highlanders (0-2) late in the first half, however — going nearly five minutes without a field goal — and led by 13 entering halftime.
Foul trouble plagued the Trojans early in the game, as both junior guard Marcus Simmons and redshirt junior forward Kasey Cunningham — who would eventually foul out — were forced to miss large portions of the first half because of foul trouble.
Lewis and sophomore forward Nikola Vucevic, who finished the game with 18 points and eight rebounds, picked up the slack late in the half and kept the Highlanders at a distance.
Defense played a key role all game, as the Trojans were able to neutralize former Trojan Kyle Austin, holding the junior to eight points.
No Highlander scored more than 12 points. The Trojans also forced 15 Highlander turnovers.
After Lewis cooled off, the Highlanders pulled the score to within eight points midway through the second half, but Simmons, one of four Trojans scoring in the double-digits, scored 11 of his 18 points in the second half, including six unanswered to extend the lead to 14. The Trojans never looked back.
“He dominated the game for us on both ends for one stretch and had some great hustle plays,” O’Neill said of Simmons.
Starting his first career game at point guard, redshirt junior Donte Smith scored 12 points, the most he has scored in a Trojan uniform, and quarterbacked the Trojan offense effectively while playing all 40 minutes of the game.
Although Smith committed five turnovers, after the game O’Neill took responsibility for Smith’s mistakes and praised his good play.
“It was my bad play calling. Two of those turnover are my responsibilities,” O’Neill said. “For a guy who hasn’t played any point guard and for him to play 40 minutes really says something about him.”
In a game in which the Trojans never trailed, a variety of the team’s new faces were able to get some playing time, most notably freshman forward Evan Smith, who contributed five points off the bench in his first career appearance. The play of the newcomers gave O’Neill cause for hope.
“For the most part, I think our whole team played well tonight,” O’Neill said. “I’m more than happy with any win, but we have to get better as a group.”