USC basketball: Trojans upset No. 19 Tennessee in Kevin O'Neill's return, 65-64
Pregame, it was all handshakes and hugs, welcome backs and good-to-see-yous.
Kevin O’Neill’s pals from Tennessee surely made the former Volunteers coach feel at home for his first trip back here since a less-than-gracious exit in 1997.
And then the game began, and any Southern hospitality turned to a cacophony of boos as O’Neill showed his old team how he used to win in Knoxville.
With aggressive defense and a patient offense, the foundation of O’Neill’s coaching philosophy, the Trojans took the No. 19 Volunteers to the final minute, just like they did against Kansas three days earlier, only this time USC closed it out down the stretch and won, 65-64.
Tennessee guard Tobias Harris missed a deep three-point attempt at the buzzer.
The win gives USC (7-5) a sweep in the two-game series with Tennessee after winning in Los Angeles last season, and it snaps a six-game road losing streak dating to last season.
Tennessee (7-3) has lost three consecutive games for the second time in Coach Bruce Pearl's six seasons.
The Trojans built a 51-43 lead early in the second half, but Tennessee used an 8-0 run to tie the score with 8:21 left.
Tennessee finally re-took the lead, 56-54, on a three-point jumper by guard Cameron Tatum with 6:34 left, but USC's Maurice Jones nailed a jumper to tie it again.
The teams kept exchanging buckets down the stretch as the crowd of 19,030 at Thompson-Boling Arena got louder and louder.
With 26.8 seconds, USC led, 65-64, with possession of the ball and, following a timeout, the best the Trojans could manage was a one-handed floater by Jones that went awry.
Tennessee got the rebound and called timeout with 3.5 seconds left, but Harris' attempt hit the back of the iron and USC players rushed on the floor to celebrate.
USC wasn't sure which Tennessee team would show up Tuesday, the one that beat two top-10 opponents, No. 7 Villanova and No. 3 Pittsburgh, or the one that just fell to mid-majors Oakland and Charlotte.
Turns out, it was the latter Volunteers team that showed up.
USC junior guard Jio Fontan, who played his first game in more than a year at No. 3 Kansas on Saturday, made his first five shots and at times fit the mold of former USC guard Mike Gerrity.
Gerrity became eligible last season before USC faced Tennessee on Dec. 19 and sparked the Trojans to a 22-point win with 12 points and 10 assists.
But Fontan picked up his fourth foul with 7:09 left and had to sit out before returning with less than five minutes left. He finished with 13 points, as did senior forward Alex Stepheson.
Jones led USC with 15 points. Harris led Tennessee with 14 points.
Tennessee shot 18 for 47 overall; USC shot 25 for 53.
USC was badly out-rebounded, 37-20, but made it up with more assists (17 to 11) and fewer turnovers (13 to 18).
The Trojans trailed for only a few minutes to start the game before their defense started to give Tennessee problems.
Soon, USC had the Volunteers down by double digits, 21-11, with 8:33 left in the first half, with 11 of the 21 points coming off turnovers.
Tennessee fought back to take the lead, 28-27, but then USC used an 11-4 run to close the first half, including consecutive three-point shots by guards Bryce Jones and Donte Smith.
For O'Neill, who was coaching his first game in Knoxville since departing in 1997 after three seasons as Tennessee's coach, the game began with many pleasantries.
Old friends wished him well before tipoff and the boos he received from the crowd when he was formally introduced were modest at worst.
Those boos became cheers when he earned a technical foul with 5:20 to play in the first half for arguing with a referee over a no-call when Smith hit the floor after contact with a Tennessee player.
So far, the Pacific 10 Conference has compiled a 4-12 non-conference record against ranked teams, a nasty blemish that will hurt Pac-10 teams' chances for NCAA tournament bids.
USC has two of those ranked wins, UCLA and California the others.
With their narrow loss at Kansas, the Trojans currently sit in decent position for earning a postseason bid one season after being banned from such a possibility.
The Trojans had alternated two wins and two losses all season, and were coming off a loss, but that streak is now snapped.
USC began the season with an eight-games-in-17-days marathon, its most games in that short a period since 1984.
Then, on Dec. 5, it entered into a gauntlet against four teams –- Northern Arizona, Texas, Kansas and Tennessee –- that had a combined 29-5 record by the time USC faced them.
Now, only a quick-turnaround date with Lehigh on Thursday stands between the Trojans and Pacific 10 Conference play, which begins one week from Wednesday against Washington.
-- Baxter Holmes in Knoxville, Tenn.