Vucevic, O’Neill a perfect fit for USC

Someone asked Nikola Vucevic after USC’s 66-63 win over California on Thursday if he enjoyed being put on the spot near the end of the game, when he knocked down four free throws in a span of 10 seconds to secure a crucial victory for the Trojans.

The sophomore didn’t hesitate.

“When I made them, I was really happy because it gave us the win,” Vucevic said. “I always wanted to be a clutch player some time.”

Leave it to the 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward to be candid.

His coach, first-year USC head man Kevin O’Neill, has been more than candid in detailing Vucevic’s successes and struggles this season.

Since December, O’Neill has pushed Vucevic, telling him — and maybe yelling at him — that he wasn’t giving his all in every game.

O’Neill has repeated the same line many, many times in a variety of ways.

Here’s one version of that chorus I wrote down after USC lost to Stanford in the Bay Area last month.

“When he learns to play hard, he’s going to surprise even himself with his performances.”

Now, he might be surprising himself, but he’s certainly not surprising his teammates.

Not after an 18-point, 14-rebound performance in Saturday’s 54-49 win over Stanford that almost single-handedly powered the Trojans to victory.

Not after tipping in perhaps the most important shot of the game with 26 seconds left, going up strong after the ball had almost refused to go in on prior USC attempts.

Not after demanding the ball and overpowering Stanford’s forwards in the post all night long.

“I feel like he’s kind of a consistent double-double for us,” senior point guard Mike Gerrity said Saturday. “He’s just all over the boards, he’s got those long arms, really doing a great job inside stretching out the offenses. He’s really been a huge addition to our team this season.”

See what I mean?

And O’Neill’s refrain — play hard and everything will work out better — is finally making inroads to Vucevic’s psyche as well.

“I think I made it easier for myself tonight because I played harder,” Vucevic said Saturday. “Coach gets on me all the time that I don’t play hard enough, but I think I did a good job in playing hard today. When you play hard it’s a lot easier to do everything.”

And his coach believes in him too — even if still thinks he’s a little green.

After all, Vucevic is just 19 years old. And this is just his third season of organized basketball in the United States.

“By the time Nik’s ready to go next year after a summer of work, he’s going to be so good,” O’Neill said after USC’s win on Saturday on the strength of Vucevic’s standout performance. “To have 18 and 14 tonight, that’s just big-time playing for a guy who hasn’t really played much.”

And, boy, did he come up big on that last-minute tip-in. With USC down 49-48, three Trojans attempted to put in a lay-up that would give them the lead.

But no one could do it, until Vucevic tipped it in with two hands.

Two hands because the last time he tried to tip a shot in — last month, against Stanford — he used only one hand, and it didn’t quite work.

This time, he listened to his coach.

Vucevic called it “a big relief.”

Senior forward Marcus Johnson said the time the ball lingered on or around the rim felt like “a lifetime,” especially with the last Stanford debacle flashing through everybody’s minds.

“I’m sitting there waiting for it to come down because I didn’t want to touch it while it was on the rim. It fell in, so I’m happy about it,” Johnson said. “He didn’t capitalize up there so he made sure he did tonight.”

Ask Vucevic to explain the situation in retrospect, and he says it’s just a learning experience.

“Over there I went with one hand and I missed,” Vucevic said. “So here I had to go with two and I made it.”

And I’m sure O’Neill is undoubtedly glad to hear of his growth and development because they both know there’s a lot more that can be grown out of the classic partnership of player and coach — or Nik and K.O. as they call each other.

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