It’s a strong start for Marcus Simmons as USC rolls past RIVERSIDE 77-67

By Pete Thomas, Los Angeles Times

As Dwight Lewis goes, so will the young and otherwise inexperienced Trojans go.

This public assessment was delivered recently by Kevin O’Neill, the new USC men’s basketball coach, and on Tuesday night the senior guard scored a game-high 22 points and had five rebounds.

And the Trojans, who aren’t supposed to be very good this season, opened the O’Neill era with a wire-to-wire 77-67 victory over UC Riverside in front of an announced crowd of 3,062 at the Galen Center.

But it’s not that simple. The Trojans, perhaps in part because of the attention paid Lewis by the Highlanders, benefited from an all-around team effort led most notably by Marcus Simmons.

The 6-foot-6 junior guard, a defensive specialist who spent the summer shooting 1,000 times a day to improve on offense, scored a career-high 18 points, 11 in the second half.

Simmons scored nine consecutive points and made several key stops during a pivotal second-half stretch during which the Highlanders cut the lead to eight with about 10 minutes left.

That was as close as the 0-2 Highlanders, who were led by forward Konner Veteto with 14 points and eight rebounds, would get.

“Shooting 1,000 times a day gave me a lot of confidence,” Simmons said. “I just wanted to do whatever I could to help my team.”

O’Neill said Simmons “dominated the game for us” during that second-half stretch and added that he was pleased by the team effort “especially considering the limited numbers we had out there.”

The Trojans, who got 18 points and eight rebounds from forward Nikola Vucevic, and 12 points from guard Donte Smith, used only seven players because of injuries and eligibility issues that have sidelined five key players.

Smith played the entire game and one of the seven, freshman forward Evan Smith, had not practiced for more than a week because of a shoulder injury. He contributed five points.

“I doubt that these guys have ever played that many minutes in their lives,” O’Neill said. “And I think that says a lot about our team — they did what they had to do to win and I’ll take any win, any time, anywhere.”

Lewis wasted no time getting started. He scored the Trojans’ first seven points as they opened a 10-2 lead they would not relinquish. Lewis finished the first half with 14 points on five-for-10 shooting — including two three-pointers. He finished four points shy of his career high.

“I was getting good looks early,” said Lewis, who was hampered by cramps in the second half but still played 35 minutes. “But I have to hand it to the other guys, especially Marcus and Nikola and Donte.”

The Highlanders, pressured throughout the game by a zone defense, could not mount a consistent attack and were held to 33.3% shooting in the first half and 43.1% in the second half. USC shot 51.9%.

The Trojans enjoyed first-half leads of 16-5 and 28-11 and cruised into halftime with a 38-25 advantage.

Lewis opened the second half with a three-pointer to set the tone for the final period. The Highlanders, who got eight points from former Trojan Kyle Austin, cut the lead to 50-42 with 10:50 when Veteto scored with a left-handed shot from about five feet.

But that was when Simmons took control. “It was real fun for me being out there with my teammates,” he said. “We just didn’t want to lose tonight.”