Mike Gerrity was supposed to be rusty after not playing a game in nearly two years.
He was supposed to be timid too, with his first game back coming against a ball-hawking squad like No. 9 Tennessee.
But Saturday, the USC point guard surprised everyone, including himself, while leading his team to a 77-55 upset in front of 4,523 at the Galen Center.
“I’m shocked at how well he played,” USC Coach Kevin O’Neill said.
“Mike Gerrity surprised me,” Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl said.
And even Gerrity, who notched his first career double-double with 12 points and 10 assists, didn’t see it coming.
“I don’t know if I expected it to be the way it did, but it was definitely something special today out there,” said the four-year starter at Santa Ana Mater Dei.
Leading USC (5-4) to its third consecutive win — and first over a top-10 team since it defeated No. 7 Stanford on March 8, 2008 — certainly qualifies as special for Gerrity, who has played at Pepperdine and Charlotte and found out Friday that the NCAA granted him a waiver to play Saturday.
But how he orchestrated the win was even more so.
He penetrated Tennessee’s pressure defense, finding teammates for open jumpers and easy lay-ins. He weaved through Tennessee’s full-court press, often leaving the Volunteers chasing to catch up. And a few times, Gerrity saw an opening in that press, and threw full-court passes that became dunks.
“I thought he was going to have an impact on the game, but I didn’t think it was going to be that big, to be honest with you,” said USC senior guard Dwight Lewis, who had a game-high 21 points.
Gerrity had seven assists in the first half, four of which fueled a 14-1 run to end the half and put the Trojans up 33-20. In the second half, it was Lewis, who scored nine straight points at one point to give the Trojans a 59-40 lead.
The win was USC’s first against a ranked team this season. The Trojans had lost two previous games against ranked teams (No. 2 Texas and No. 23 Georgia Tech) by a combined 45 points.
“If you watched our games before this game, it looked like we were playing in fast forward,” O’Neill said. “One playmaker can make that much of a difference.”
Pearl agreed, and said he hadn’t seen any tape of Gerrity before the game.
“This was a different team with him,” Pearl said.
O’Neil also credited USC’s defense, which held Tennessee (8-2) to season lows in points, field-goal percentage (35%, 20 for 58) and three-point percentage (9%, two of 22).
Tennessee, which struggled to find a rhythm all game, had only two players in double figures: Scotty Hopson (16 points) and Melvin Goins (10).
The Trojans also dominated the boards, outrebounding Tennessee, 43-21.
Alex Stepheson (19 and 10) and Nikola Vucevic (15 and 10) both had double-digit points and rebounds.
“I didn’t think we’d beat them like this,” O’Neill said. “It was a huge deal holding them to 55 points when they average 84 points. That’s a great team.”
USC now heads to Hawaii to compete in the eight-team Diamond Head Classic tournament, where Western Michigan awaits Tuesday. Forward Leonard Washington, who is expected to become eligible during the tournament, will make the trip, and O’Neill said he expects his team to only get better.
But he made sure to give a special shout-out Saturday.
“I’d like to thank our compliance people for making sure Michael Gerrity was eligible,” O’Neill said, half-joking. “That was probably the best thing to happen to us all week.”
For Gerrity, who had many family members and friends in the audience, it was the best thing to happen in almost two years.