Eighteen turnovers led to 27 Southern Cal points Tuesday night, and that proved decisive as the visiting Trojans upset the 19th-ranked Vols 65-64.
Tennessee rebounded a USC miss with 15 seconds left but unraveled on its final possession - calling timeout with 3.5 seconds remaining, then settling for a 25-foot jumper by freshman Tobias Harris that rimmed out at the buzzer.
The loss was Tennessee's third in a row since a 7-0 start propelled the Big Orange to a No. 7 national ranking. Things could get worse before they get better, too. The Vols have just one day to regroup before facing a Thursday night rematch against a pesky Belmont team that nearly beat them a month ago.
Basically, Tuesday was like old times at Thompson-Boling Arena - Kevin O'Neill patrolling the sidelines and Tennessee's offense looking utterly inept. In addition to the 18 turnovers, the Vols shot a paltry 38.3 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from 3. Tennessee's ongoing offensive woes nullified a 38-23 backboard advantage and enabled O'Neill to beat his former team for the second year in a row. The Trojans trounced UT 77-55 in Los Angeles one year and two days earlier.
Counting their 11/18 assist/turnover ratio Tuesday night, the 2010-11 Vols are on track to be Bruce Pearl's first squad to finish a season with more turnovers (154) than assists (135). The 2005-06 team posted 509 assists vs. 386 turnovers, the 2006-07 team 546 vs. 496, the 2007-08 team 637 vs. 474, the 2008-09 team 554 vs. 452 and the 2009-10 team 530 vs. 490.
"Our assist/turnover ratio is not anything like what it's traditionally always been ... not even close," Pearl said. "I would think that's an issue."
Point guards Melvin Goins (1) and Trae Golden (0) were virtually turnover-free vs. USC but junior wings Scotty Hopson (6) and Cameron Tatum (4) combined for more than half of Tennessee's team total.
"Between Scotty and Cameron, we've got 10 turnovers," Pearl said.
Hopson also continues to struggle with his shooting. Since hitting 10 of 13 shots en route to a career-high 27 points in Tennessee's 83-76 upset of No. 3 Pittsburgh 10 days ago, he has gone 1 for 7 in a loss to Oakland, 6 for 19 in a loss to Charlotte and 1 for 5 in the loss to USC. That's a combined 8 for 31 (25.8 percent), including 1 for 10 (10.0 percent) from 3.
"Obviously, Scotty's struggling," Pearl said. "When one of your best players has 27 against Pittsburgh ... and the last three games it's been a struggle for him. He's trying. He's working in practice. He's probably pressing a little bit. Obviously, it affects his whole game and it affects our team tremendously."
Harris led the Vols with 14 points. Tatum atoned somewhat for his turnovers by contributing 12 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists. Goins added 10 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Brian Williams just missed a double/double, contributing 9 points and 9 rebounds.
Williams, Harris and reserve post John Fields did a good job defensively, limiting USC's Alex Stepheson (13 points, 7 rebounds) and Nikola Vucevic (4 points, 1 rebound) to a combined 17 points and 8 rebounds. The Vols weren't nearly as successful containing Trojan guards Maurice Jones (15 points, 4 assists, 4 steals) and Jio Fontan (13 points, 4 assists, 3 steals).
"They have great quickness," Pearl noted. "We're pretty big at the 2 and 3 but we're not particularly quick except at the point. Did they take advantage of that at times? Absolutely. Mo Jones had an absolutely phenomenal game and hit some big shots."
Several hundred of the 19,030 fans on hand booed the pre-game introduction of O'Neill, who abruptly left UT after the 1996-97 season to make a parallel move to Northwestern. Their mood didn't improve when the visiting Trojans built a 21-11 lead 11 minutes into the game.
Tennessee pulled even at 23 but faltered again en route to a 38-32 halftime deficit.
The Vols rallied to go up 58-56 with 5:19 remaining but a 3-pointer by Donte Smith capped a 9-2 spurt that gave USC a 65-60 lead with 2:13 to go.
Two free throws by Hopson at 1:59 and two by Goins at 0:48 whittled the gap to 65-64 but Tennessee's failure to get a decent look on its final possession foiled the comeback bid.
"This was a very disappointing loss," Pearl said. "Their 27 points off our 18 turnovers is probably what killed us."