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USC's effort -- or something -- lacking

DAYTON, Ohio -- After the Trojans lost, 59-46, to Virginia Commonwealth on Wednesday night, USC junior guard Jio Fontan uttered the words you never want to hear about the game of basketball, especially if you're a fan of a team that just got embarrassed on national television in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

What did Fontan say?

Only that he felt Virginia Commonwealth wanted to win Wednesday's game more than USC did.

"They came out and they performed like they wanted it more," said Fontan, USC's top player on the night with 14 points on 6-for-12 shooting and two assists and the team's most vocal leader. "They got a couple more loose balls than we did. The pace of the game was more in their favor than it was in ours.

"It's just unfortunate. We didn't control the pace like we wanted to."

Coming from Fontan, the assertion means a lot. He's generally the most thoughtful player on the team and usually gives honest, genuine answers. Still, USC coach Kevin O'Neill didn't agree with his star pupil about his team's desire to win.

"I don't think they wanted it more," O'Neill said shortly after Fontan's comment. "I can assure you our guys wanted to win and have wanted to win all year long and have really fought their tails off every single day."

But he very much agreed with Fontan's opinion about the Trojans' inability to control the tempo as they had hoped.

The first half was fine. USC kept it slow and led, 22-19, with a minute to go before VCU's Rob Brandenburg tied it with a 3-pointer going into the break.

From then on, though, the Rams were the controlling force of the game, keeping the pace going at a blinding rate for much of the final 20 minutes and forcing USC to run back and forth down the court.

"We had the game at a perfect tempo the first half, but, for whatever reason, the first five minutes of the second half we thought we had to try to make plays early in the break and early in possessions and things like that," O'Neill said in his postgame news conference. "And that really, I think, got us off kilter."

That reminds us -- O'Neill is usually a guy who has an answer to everything, even the most obscure of questions. He can always attribute an event to some cause, sometimes going back months but pretty much always finding some cause somewhere.

He couldn't find many causes Wednesday. He used the phrase 'for whatever reason' -- or the plural form, reasons -- three different times in the news conference at University of Dayton Arena.

Said O'Neill when asked why his team recorded only five offensive rebounds and four second-chance points on the night: "They outrebounded us because we did not guard rebounds tonight, we did not track the ball down, we did not -- we were a step slow to everything, for whatever reasons.

Said O'Neill when asked why his players were exceedingly nervous for a lot longer than he predicted they would be, even stretching late into the second half: "We had a group of guys that, for whatever reasons, hadn't been in those situations, and as a group we didn't react very well tonight."

So, yes, there were quite a few answers-but-no-answers from O'Neill after his team's season ended Wednesday night. But give him credit, too. He could have come to the news conference and slammed his team for a lackluster effort, as he has done at times in his career and as many college coaches tend to do after games like that.

But he didn't, instead taking the high road and ending his opening statement with a positive look back at the 2010-2011 season and a subtle look ahead to the 2011-2012 season.

"I'm really proud of our team," O'Neill said. "I want to thank our seniors who did such a courageous job over the course of the year. When it looked like our season was dead in the water, these guys came back and played hard and did their job. It's unfortunate we didn't play well tonight in the tournament.

"But we did get to the tournament, which says a lot about our team and a lot about the future."

USC laid an egg, no doubt, in the loss to VCU, finishing its season with a 19-15 record. O'Neill said it himself. And the Trojans looked a little discouraged in the final few minutes of the game, too, choosing not to foul the Rams as the clock wound down.

But, from our vantage point, it wasn't so much that as it was an overall team-wide tiredness. As they have all season, the Trojans refused to blame the loss on fatigue -- "We've been playing the same seven guys the whole year," Fontan said -- but to not attribute a significant portion of the way this game unfolded to weariness would be a mistake.