Behind strong performances from Mike Gerrity, Dwight Lewis, and Marcus Johnson, USC handled No. 20 UNLV, 67-56, to win the inaugural Diamond Head Classic on Christmas Day.
Johnson led the Trojans with a career-high 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Lewis added 14 points, and Gerrity had 13 points and three assists while earning Tournament MVP honors. Johnson was also named to the All-Tournament team.
The Trojans (8-4) seemed to improve game-by-game in the tourney, held on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. USC trailed 27-18 at halftime of its first-round game with Western Michigan, but a late run by Gerrity and co. allowed the Trojans to sneak past the Broncos by a 55-51 score. Against a solid St. Mary's team, USC pitched perhaps its best defensive performance of the young season, holding the Gaels to 49 points — 35 below their season average.
But against a Runnin' Rebels team favored by most to win the tournament, USC played well all-around in a comfortable victory. Seven Trojans scored, and USC held UNLV to just 34 percent shooting, as only Westchester High product Oscar Bellfield scored more than seven points (17). UCLA transfer Chace Stanback had just five points on 1-of-5 shooting.
It was perhaps a bit ironic, even, that a UNLV team coached by NBA and NCAA veteran Lon Kruger — whom many wanted as the next USC coach instead of now-coach Kevin O'Neill — was so dominated by O'Neill's Trojans.
Defensively, O'Neill's team is undeniably stout. Friday's 56 points from UNLV (12-2) were the most scored on the Trojans since a December 5 loss to Georgia Tech, and Gerrity and Johnson have showed a serious penchant for steals in recent games.
This tournament performance was not a fluke. USC displayed defense and sheer athletic ability that will surely keep them in the top half of an admittedly weak Pac-10 conference this year regardless of offensive ups-and-downs. With seven experienced rotation players, the Trojans aren't exactly deep, but they're not so shorthanded either.
The return of forward Leonard Washington on Wednesday added another dimension to the USC offense, which could prove important with the seeming disappearance of Alex Stepheson. Stepheson had only 10 points in the entire tournament and seemed entirely out of it tonight. O'Neill said last week that Washington (nine points today) was his team's second best playmaker, behind only Gerrity.
USC's next contest is a New Year's Eve date with Pac-10 rival Arizona, who boasts a roster crowded with former Trojan recruits — Solomon Hill, Lamont Jones, and Derrick Williams.