By Mike Griffith
LOS ANGELES — Tennessee knew all about Southern Cal coach Kevin O’Neill and his penchant for tight defense and a slow, deliberate offense.
But senior point guard Mike Gerrity was quite a surprise Saturday afternoon at the Galen Center.
Gerrity, a 23-year-old transfer, was made eligible just in time to score 12 points and dish out 10 assists to lead USC (5-4) to a shocking 77-55 victory over the ninth-ranked Vols (8-2).
“Gerrity, omigosh, the guy hadn’t played in 21 months, and he comes out and dominated the game,’’ UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “Kevin obviously knows what a difference he makes, because he played him 37 minutes.’’
Gerrity, who started his career at Pepperdine before transferring to Charlotte and ultimately USC, was granted an academic waiver by the NCAA early Saturday.
Point guard play was only part of the story; the Trojans’ rebounding dominance (43-21), and UT’s poor perimeter shooting (2 of 22 from 3-point range) also led to the improbable blowout.
“We caught them on a night they didn’t shoot well,’’ said O’Neill, who was coach at UT for three seasons (1994-97). “If we played them 10 times, I don’t think we’d come out 6-4.’’
Unless the Vols were to have another of the worst shooting nights in Pearl’s UT tenure — the two 3-pointers made were the lowest in his five years as coach in Knoxville.
“Early in the game we had good looks and didn’t make them, and it was contagious,’’ said Pearl, whose team was favored by 11. “We just didn’t seem to have any energy.’’
The Vols arrived in Los Angeles on Thursday night, but their offense never showed up. Sophomore Scotty Hopson led the Vols with 16 points while junior guard Melvin Goins had 10.
Shooting guard Dwight Lewis lit up the Vols for 21 points, while big men Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic recorded double-doubles. Stepheson, a 6-foot-9 transfer from North Carolina, had 19 points and 15 rebounds. Vucevic had 15 points and 10 rebounds.
The Vols’ plan was to hit open threes and attack the rim when opportunities were presented.
“All of the 3-pointers were wide open, they really sagged on defense,’’ said UT senior Wayne Chism, who suffered through a 1-of-7 shooting game beyond the arc. “It was just one of those games.’’
The one 3-pointer Chism hit, at the 4:14 mark of the first half, tied the game at 19-19. It appeared at that time the Vols could compete at O’Neill’s snail-like pace.
But the Trojans caught fire, closing the first half on a 14-1 run to excite a sparse crowd of 4,523 that included USC football coach Pete Carroll.
O’Neill said he knew the Trojans were in good shape, having neutralized 6-7 forward Tyler Smith by fronting him in the paint with the 6-10 Vucevic.
“When (Smith) catches in the paint or drives in the paint, he’s as good as there is in the country at making plays,’’ said O’Neill, the first former UT coach to face the Vols since 1990 when Don DeVoe was at Florida. “I thought at halftime if we could come out and not let them barrage us the first seven or eight minutes, we had a good chance.’’
Tennessee’s shooting woes continued on the perimeter and at the free-throw line in the second half. The Vols made 13 of 25 (.520) from the line and failed to score outside the paint the second half.
USC opened the second half with a three-point play by Vucevic, and the biggest run UT managed thereafter was 4-0, never drawing closer than 12 points.
“That was an amazing reality check, and it shows we have a lot more work to do,’’ said Smith, who was held to three points and one assists. “I apologized to my teammates. I wasn’t aggressive enough making plays.’’
The Vols were scheduled to leave Los Angeles shortly before midnight and return to Knoxville this morning.
Tennessee returns to action at 7 p.m. Wednesday against North Carolina A&T at Thompson-Boling Arena.