USC handles UNLV for title
By Kyle Sakamoto
Advertiser Staff Writer
USC took care of the basketball against UNLV, and it allowed the Trojans to take care of business yesterday in the final of the inaugural Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.
USC also outphysicaled UNLV, ranked No. 20 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll.
The Trojans committed just eight turnovers against UNLV's full-court pressing defense and used a 16-2 first-half run to win 67-56 at the Stan Sheriff Center.
"That is our third win over a Top 30 team in six days," said USC coach Kevin O'Neill, whose team also beat Tennessee and Saint Mary's. "We're starting to play better and better basketball. We're starting to get together a little bit."
The Runnin' Rebels couldn't wreak havoc with their defense until the very end in this one. They entered the game averaging 18.4 forced turnovers, 9.4 steals and 78.0 points per game.
UNLV's poor shooting — 17 of 50 from the field — didn't allow it to set up its press often. When the Runnin' Rebels did convert, Trojans point guard Mike Gerrity was able to get the ball down the court with nifty ball-handling.
"Mike Gerrity is unbelievable with the ball," O'Neill said. "We didn't mess around with any press breaks. We just said let's get it to him and let him make the decisions and we'll go from there."
Gerrity, the tournament MVP, finished with no turnovers.
"We have Mike Gerrity, the one-man press break right there," said USC's Marcus Johnson, a 6-foot-6 senior.
Johnson, who was averaging 8.8 points per game, scored 19, Dwight Lewis added 14 and Gerrity had 13 for USC (8-4), which won its sixth in a row.
Johnson, Alex Stepheson (6-9) and Leonard Washington (6-7) were physical inside, which forced UNLV to drive or shoot from long range. Most of the drives were contested and the Runnin' Rebels were 5 of 22 from 3-point range.
"They knocked us around a little bit on our offensive end," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger.
In addition to holding UNLV (12-2) to a poor shooting performance, the Trojans also forced 15 turnovers.
"We just were sticking to our principles," said Gerrity, a 6-1 senior. "Coach came up with a great game plan on defense and we just tried to contain them."
The Trojans' 16-2 run gave them a 35-18 lead with 2:18 left before halftime. Lewis scored all seven of his first-half points during the surge. The most spectacular came on a length-of-the-court inbounds pass from Gerrity to Lewis, who hit the layup and was fouled. His free throw put USC up 33-18 with 2:45 left.
"When we had that run it really happened out of our defense," O'Neill said. "We also had two plays against the press, two throws over the top for long baskets that really helped us."
Johnson scored the first six points of the game for USC and finished the half with 12 points. Gerrity added 10 points as USC led 39-25 at halftime.
"I came out a little more aggressive," Johnson said. "Mike was looking for me a little more and it just came."
USC scored 15 points off nine UNLV turnovers, while the Rebels forced just two turnovers in the first half.
"They converted some turnovers of ours into offensive transition opportunities for them and popped us around pretty good at that time," Kruger said.
The Trojans took their largest lead at 54-35 on Lewis' field goal with 9:32 remaining.
UNLV got as close as 59-50 with 2:39 left after a free throw by Tre'Von Willis.
USC couldn't pull away late because of struggles from the free-throw line. During a four-minute stretch the Trojans were 4 of 10 from the line, including misses on front end of two 1-and-1s.
"We missed a ton of free throws and layups down the stretch or it could have been a 20-point game," O'Neill said. "Credit (the Runnin' Rebels) because they kept fighting and fighting and fighting."
Oscar Bellfield scored 17 points for UNLV, which had its five-game winning streak snapped. The Runnin' Rebels' only other loss came Dec. 12 against Kansas State, 95-80.