“I was thinking, not again,” said USC junior forward Alex Stepheson.
A game-winning 3-pointer from a young freshman – a former McDonald’s High School All-American. Saturday afternoon, Kansas’ guard Josh Selby drained the winning bucket against USC with 26 seconds remaining.
On Tuesday, it was Tennessee forward Tobias Harris with the ball in his hands trying to hand USC (7-5) back-to-back heart-breaking losses on the road.
The No. 18 Volunteers (7-3) inbounded the ball to Harris from midcourt with 3.5 seconds remaining. USC’s top defender, Marcus Simmons, didn’t bite on a flare screen and Harris was forced to catch the ball near halfcourt.
Harris took two dribbles to his right. Simmons sprawled onto the floor in front of Harris as the freshman launched a shot five feet from behind the three-point line. The red lights lit up around the edge of the backboard. The final horn sounded.
“It was straight. It was real straight,” Stepheson said.
“A lot of things went through my head. It was like watching a movie,” USC guard Jio Fontan said. “It was in slow mo[tion]. I saw a freshman. I saw the ball have enough air on it.”
The shot was perfectly on line. It was going to crush the Trojans’ “Fight On” will, send them plummeting to a .500 record and potentially end their NCAA Tournament at-large hopes before conference play even began.
Instead, when Simmons looked up from the court, he saw the ball bounding back toward him. Maurice Jones grabbed the basketball that had clanked off the back rim. USC celebrated an impressive 65-64 road victory at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.
“It was just a big sigh of relief. I was ready to take off my jersey and go crazy,” said Fontan, who finished with 13 points, four assists, and three steals despite being in foul trouble for much of the game. “But I just had to smile and get out of there with a ‘W.’”
In a back-and-forth contest, surprisingly, it was USC’s outside shooting that carried them. The Trojans knocked down 43 percent of their 3-point attempts. Maurice and Bryce Jones made three each.
Four players, including the Joneses, scored in double figures. But for only the third time this season, leading scorer Nikola Vucevic did not.
Vucevic was shut down by Tennessee’s interior defense and foul trouble. He only scored four points and grabbed one rebound before fouling out after playing only 24 minutes.
Without Vucevic for much of the game, coach Kevin O’Neill went to a smaller four-guard lineup often featuring the combo of Maurice Jones, Donte Smith and Fontan – none taller than six foot.
“We have no choices. This investigation devastated our team. We have eight guys that we play,” O’Neill said. “We had to play small. We said ‘Hey, we’re stuck doing it so let’s go.’”
Maurice Jones scored a game-high 15 points and added four rebounds, four assists and four steals. Bryce Jones scored in double-figures for the first time in three weeks, while Stepheson quietly had another solid performance, scoring 13 points and snatching seven rebounds while playing 39 minutes.
For Tennessee, Harris led the way with 14 points. But leading-scorer Scotty Hobson struggled for the third consecutive game – three Volunteer losses. He shot only 1-of-5 from the floor and committed six of Tennessee’s 18 turnovers.
USC will return home to face its third consecutive opponent that made last year’s NCAA Tournament. They will take on Lehigh at 5:30 p.m. PST in a game O’Neill believes could be tougher than bouncing back after the tough loss to Kansas.
“We had lost two close games already. We don’t have a lot of wiggle room if we want to do anything. We needed to get a road win and getting one over a ranked team is really important. I’m more worried about a letdown two days from now when we play at home.”