Saturday, December 11, 2010
Basketball: USC 60, Northern Arizona 52
By Pedro Moura
LOS ANGELES -- In Donte Smith's three years at USC since transferring from nearby Mt. San Antonio College, the redshirt senior guard had never managed to score more than 14 points in a game.
He matched that number in less than four minutes Saturday, connecting on four 3-pointers and a key breakaway layup when Northern Arizona got close in the second half of Saturday's game at the Galen Center, leading the Trojans to 60-52 victory.
"I thought Donte really stepped up for us, and that's kind of an understatement," USC coach Kevin O'Neill said. "What he did tonight won the game for us."
USC (6-4) led just 40-37 with 9:27 to go after NAU's Cameron Jones poured in a 10-footer, but Smith hit a 3-pointer on the Trojans' next trip down the floor, converted a layup after a Marcus Simmons steal, and then hit three consecutive threes -- interrupted by one Lumberjack triple -- to open up the lead to 54-40.
The Trojans then dealt with one more NAU push before sealing it with two free throws from freshman Maurice Jones (nine points and four assists in 40 minutes) in the final minute. The Lumberjacks (7-3) played an oddly solid defense throughout the game -- "kind of a man and zone at the same time," forward Nikola Vucevic described it -- and forced USC to rely either on the outside shot or the inside game, with no in-between.
With Alex Stepheson and Vucevic combining to shoot just 7-of-20 from the field for the Trojans, they were fortunate Smith was on his game.
Player of the game: Smith finished with a career-high 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including 5-of-9 from 3-point range. Picking up for freshman Bryce Jones, who O'Neill said struggled on defense in the second half, he also had a season-high three steals in 31 minutes.
He's done the whole shoot-well-off-the-bench shtick before, but he took it to a new level this time. The fourth three, particularly, was fun to watch. Smith showed some maturity in not demanding the ball right away on the possession and instead waited for the ball to come around to him at the right elbow, calmly and smoothly converting the shot when it did.
"Donte is that type of guy," said Vucevic, who had his sixth double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds. "He's going to come off the bench and hit a few big shots and get us going. In the second half, we kinda stopped playing hard at one point and Donte came in and hit like three threes in a row, and that got us going.
"That's what he does. He's just a guy who comes in and brings a lot of energy."
Stat of the game: Vucevic and Stepheson each had four blocks in Saturday's game -- by far the Trojans' most this season. USC's previous high had been four. The two forwards also added 21 rebounds.
NAU didn't start a player taller than 6-foot-7, although the Lumberjacks did have two legitimate forwards available off the bench. Vucevic and Stepheson's dominant defensive play a inside the keymade those players -- 6-foot-9 Austin Smith and 6-foot-10 Josh Lepley -- fairly obsolete.
NAU scored only 18 points in the paint and was out-rebounded by 12, 41-29.
Quote of the game: "Jio Fontan is going to start for us. I don't know who else is going to start or not start for us, but Jio is going to start."
O'Neill has strictly maintained all season that Fontan, a transfer from Fordham, would immediately become the Trojans' top guard when he became eligible to compete after the end of the first semester.
Well, that time has come.
By the time USC plays its next game -- at Kansas next Saturday, conveniently -- the fall semester will be over at USC and Fontan will suit up with his team and immediately be inserted into the starting lineup. O'Neill's goal for his team was to stay in reasonably good shape for his return, and the Trojans have done that, although their resume was significantly damaged by an embarrassing home loss to Rider last month. Now, Fontan's debut will give the team its full roster just in time for the key Kansas and Tennessee road games.
Said Lumberjacks coach Mike Adras, who took over at NAU in 1999 for now-UCLA coach Ben Howland: "USC is a good team, and they are going to be even better when Jio Fontan becomes eligible."
We'll have more on Fontan in the coming week.
Notes: The Trojans improved to 5-0 when holding the opponent to a field-goal percentage of 40 percent or worse and 5-1 at home on the season. ...NAU had entered the game on a seven-game winning streak, beating Pepperdine on the road during that span. The Lumberjacks also came within four points of beating Creighton last month. USC assistant coach Bob Cantu tweeted after the game that NAU will win its conference -- the Big Sky -- this season. Said O'Neill: "They're obviously a very good team and I thought they played exceptionally well."
See what Smith had to say to the media after the game, including intriguing comments on the chemistry present with this year's Trojans squad and his hard work last offseason: