Thursday, December 23, 2010
Basketball: USC 76, Lehigh 49
By Pedro Moura
LOS ANGELES -- The Lehigh Mountain Hawks didn't know what they were in for on Thursday night at the Galen Center.
USC guard Jio Fontan surprised them.
Fontan, playing only his third game since making his debut Saturday against Kansas, was the best player on the court -- driving to the hoop, hitting the spot-up three and working in a mid-range jumper or two to finish with a game-high 21 points to lead the Trojans to a dominating 76-49 win over traditional Patriot League power Lehigh.
Afterward, Mountain Hawks coach Brett Reed lamented a lack of a solid scouting report on Fontan and said he added a "dangerous element" to the USC offense.
"It really would have helped us to be able to watch more film on him to prepare our team," Reed said. "We didn't make adjustments throughout the game and it cost us.
"He's been aggressive and he came out that way again tonight."
On top of what Fontan did, USC (8-5) also got 16 points from forward Nikola Vucevic, 13 from reserve guard Donte Smith and 11 from forward Alex Stepheson to form a balanced attack and avoid a possible letdown against a worthy Lehigh (6-6) squad that made the NCAA tournament last season and put up a fight against Kansas in the first round.
Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill stressed the importance -- no, the necessity -- of finishing the nonconference season with a win before the team takes a short Christmas break and returns to the court Wednesday against Washington.
"It was really important for us -- KO told us going into the game that this was how a letdown happens," Vucevic said. "People were thinking about going home and relaxing for the holidays and KO told us to just focus for these 40 minutes and get the job done, and I think everybody did a good job of that and we got the win."
Player of the game: Fontan finished with 21 points and four steals in 38 minutes, his best line yet since his debut Saturday at Kansas.
He truly was sharp, recording four assists and only one turnover, shooting 4-of-4 from 3-point range and hitting almost 60 percent of his shots.
"He's a good player," Reed said. "He shot well, played great overall and made things hard on the defense."
There has clearly been a learning curve for Fontan in his return to game situations, but he has raced through it rather quickly. You could argue that his play has gotten better in each of his six halves so far.
"Jio is getting better every game," O'Neill said. "He's been the missing piece for us."
Stat of the game: Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum entered the game averaging 22.5 points, but he was held to only seven points on 2-for-8 shooting Thursday -- a stat made possible, in large part, by the defensive prowess of Trojans swingman Marcus Simmons.
O'Neill called Simmons' job on McCollum "super."
A sophomore, McCollum had been named the Patriot League Player of the Week for four weeks running and also earned some national recognition after his 42-point game against Kent State last month. No Division I player has scored more than 42 points in a game this season.
"He's a great player," Fontan said. "We focused on him big-time, in a similar way to what we did against [Texas swingman] Jordan Hamilton and we did a pretty good job on him."
Quote of the game: "We take on the character of our coach, pretty much," Fontan said. "We take on his personality, which is just to go out there and defend and play hard."
This team seems to have found its identity: defense first. That's what Vucevic said after Thursday's game, saying the Trojans have finally realized that they will not win consistently with their current roster unless they do a bang-up job on defense.
It makes a lot of sense, and it meshes with O'Neill's modus operandi since his early coaching days.
Notes: Vucevic had a full line of 16 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high six blocks for his seventh double-double of the season. His previous high in blocks was set over a year ago against Idaho State. ... Lehigh hadn't played a game in the state of California in more than 10 years. ... USC freshman guard Bryce Jones earned a technical foul in the second half for an apparent shove on a Lehigh player and didn't play for the final 2:34 of the game. O'Neill had been whistled for a technical himself in the first half of the Tennessee game. "Technical fouls are not going to be tolerated, even on my part, when I got one last game," O'Neill said afterward. "They're just giving points away."
Fontan talked to the media after his home opener, addressing his level of nerves, the gameplan against Lehigh and what the Trojans plan to do in conference play.