LOS ANGELES – While USC got back on track Saturday afternoon at the Galen Center, UC Riverside continued to veer so far off track the Highlanders may have lost sight of it in a 70-26 loss.
The last six Highlander points helped UC Riverside narrowly avoid a very dubious honor. The 26 points scored is just six away from the NCAA all-time shot clock era low of 20, set by Saint Louis in 2008. However, the Highlanders scored the fewest points in program history. The previous low was 29 set in 1956.
Jio Fontan and Eric Wise led all scorers with 14 points each and Fontan dished out six assists for USC (4-6) in a win that snapped a five-game skid.
Chris Patton and Chris Harriel each scored six to lead the Highlanders (2-8).
“Things just kind of unraveled on us,” said UCR head coach Jim Woolridge. “We couldn’t make a shot, we couldn’t make a free throw. So all around just a poor effort.”
Woolridge, who USC head coach Kevin O’Neill called, “a hell of a coach,” shouldered most of the blame for the dismal play.
“Bad execution, bad coaching; I’ve got to do a better job,” Woolridge said. “I’ve got to find a way to get these guys ready to play and come out energized.”
Although it was a confidence-boosting win that the flailing Trojans desperately wanted, it wasn’t exactly a morale-builder. The Trojans felt confident about their defense, holding the Highlanders to just 19 percent from the field which was the lowest opponent shooting mark in USC history, but the entire USC squad is all too aware of the feeling that overtakes a locker room after an extra-tough loss.
“I’ve been there,” O’Neill said. “I feel for anyone in that situation. I’ve been in a lot of rebuild jobs, that’s hard.”
“They’re not as bad as that score looked,” Fontan said.
The biggest struggle for the Highlanders was the length of the USC frontcourt. Dewayne Dedmon and Omar Oraby contributed nine of the Trojans’ 10 total blocks. Dedmon alone swatted six, which is tied for the eighth-most in school history. The attempt to push the offense outside failed as well with several missed threes from long range.
“We knew USC would give us trouble, especially inside with their size,” Woolridge said. “But I thought I had prepared them enough to compete. But we just lost our confidence and after that we just didn’t play with effort.”
Harriel hit the only trey for the Highlanders, who attempted a total of 14.
“I love how our front line played tonight,” O’Neill said. “I thought our front line did a great job of protecting the basket, and rebounding it and sharing it and they made a lot of good things happen.”
The Trojans shot 52 percent from the field and 45 percent from the perimeter, in an effort that O’Neill said was the most complete game of the season.
“Our effort was there the whole time,” said O’Neill, who has lamented his team’s lack of energy on the court in recent games. “We know it’s not Minnesota, who is 13th in the country, we understand that.
“But it’s a step back from digging ourselves into a hole that we got ourselves into by not playing hard, by not defending, by not being serious about the defensive effort.”
USC appeared to be off to one of its typical slow starts, scoring just five points in a little over five minutes. But the Trojans were able to shake it off after the first media timeout at 14:19.
After Robert Smith gave the Highlanders’ their first basket of the night, the Trojans went on a 10-2 run to go up 14-4.
Riverside came back to score eight straight, pulling up to 16-8 midway through the first half. A few minutes later, Harriel hit two free throws to once again bring the Highlanders back to within striking distance, 19-10. But a 21-2 run by the Trojans left UCR with too wide of a gap to make up in the second half, as they went down 39-12.
As the second half opened, the Trojans continued to execute on both ends of the court while the Highlanders failed to make plays. UC Riverside scored only one point, a free throw by Harriel, in the first 14 minutes of the half.
Finally, with 5:38 left to play, Harriel sunk a three. Taylor Johns followed suit with a dunk on the next possession to bring the total to 18 points and Patton’s short jumper brought them to 20.
Davin Guinn saved his team from the distinction of having scored fewest point total in the shot clock era with a jumper at 2:43.
“A lot of it is mental toughness,” Woolridge said. “The guys have got to learn how to be tough out there, especially when things aren’t going our way.”