Southern California's Jio Fontan (2) drives against Tennessee's John Fields (25) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010 in Knoxville, Tenn. USC won 65-64. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
KNOXVILLE — Same inbounds spot. Different shooter. Same result.
Freshman forward Tobias Harris narrowly missed a deep jump shot at the buzzer Tuesday night in Thompson-Boling Arena, and the Tennessee men’s basketball team lost 65-64 to Southern California.
“I thought it was in. I really thought it was good,” Harris said of his last-second attempt. “I’m kind of shocked right now, but it just happens like that in this game.”
The 19th-ranked Volunteers (7-3) continued their fall from the nation’s elite with a third consecutive surprising loss — this one to a former Tennessee coach, Kevin O’Neill, and his Trojans (7-5).
UT, which is now 31-16 under coach Bruce Pearl in games decided by five points or less but 1-8 in one-point games, lost 49-48 in similar circumstances Friday night at Charlotte.
The Vols inbounded the ball with less than four seconds left both times — and both times from the right side, near midcourt — but both times they settled for a deep shot well behind the 3-point line.
Friday night, junior guard Cam Tatum’s shot screamed off the backboard before falling to the floor.
Tuesday night, Harris’s shot danced around the back of the rim before falling to the floor.
And the Vols — who won the NIT Season Tip-Off and have beaten Top 10 teams Villanova and Pittsburgh — again were left searching for several answers.
What is wrong with junior guard Scotty Hopson? Why can’t the Vols take care of the ball? Who is going to make the shot to win a close game? When is this streak going to end?
“I can’t even remember the last time I lost three straight games,” Tatum said. “Probably my freshman year in high school. Maybe. I don’t know. But it doesn’t feel good.”
The Vols did many things well enough to win Tuesday night. Their post defense was generally solid against a potent, jumbo-sized frontcourt of Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson. They crushed the Trojans 38-23 on the boards. They held them to 10-of-27 shooting (37 percent) in the second half. They made 24 of 29 free throws, though four of the five misses came in the final six minutes.
But the Vols shot 18-of-47 (38.3 percent) from the field. And they made 18 turnovers with just 11 assists. The Trojans turned those turnovers into 27 points.
“I think my greatest challenge offensively,” Pearl said, “is — in addition to getting some sort of continuity and flow, and that has to do with a lot of teaching that needs to take place, still — who to put the ball in [whose] hands who can make a pass, either to feed the post or to get the ball on time, on target to somebody.”
Pearl noted UT’s final possession as a prime example of that problem. The 6-foot-6 Tatum soared over the 6-10, 250-pound Stepheson to collect a defensive rebound with less than 15 seconds left, giving the Vols a chance to win a game they never controlled. But UT took more than 10 seconds to get the ball down the court, forcing Tatum to call time out with 3.5 seconds left.
“If we get the ball into our point guard’s hands, guys run down the floor, the floor gets some kind of spacing and some kind of spread, then Melvin [Goins] maybe make a play,” Pearl said. “We did a poor job in the fastbreak. ... We panicked a little bit.”
The Vols had similar struggles getting the ball down the floor at Charlotte. But as they did against the 49ers, they still had a chance to top the Trojans. But, again, poor inbounds execution forced them to settle for a long shot.
Pearl designed a play for Harris, but he was supposed to get the ball at the top of the key and drive to the rim. He didn’t have the space or time to do that, because the Trojans didn’t bite on the Vols’ designed distractions.
“That was a real tough look,” Harris said. “I knew if I got it at the top of the key, I was going to score. It’s tough, but it happens. We’ll watch the film and see what we could have done better. But yeah, it was a tough shot, especially for a game-winner like that.
“But, you know, it was real close to going in, also. It could have gone either way.”
UT scored the game’s first bucket but trailed most of the first half. USC took a 21-11 lead on a Stepheson free throw with 8:32 left in the first half, but two Harris free throws capped the Vols’ subsequent run that tied the game at 23 with 5:11 left. Two more Harris free tosses gave UT a 28-27 lead with 2:40 left, but consecutive right-corner 3s from Maurice Jones and Donte Smith put USC back in front, and the Trojans extended that advantage to 38-32 at the break.
Neither team handled the ball well in the first half. UT had 11 turnovers at the break, and USC had 10. Harris led all scorers with 10 points — thanks largely to 6-for-6 free-throw shooting — and Stepheson led the Trojans with nine.
Hopson had two points at halftime, shooting 0-for-3 from the floor. He had four turnovers, all ball-handling blunders. He finished with eight points on 1-of-5 shooting and six turnovers in 30 minutes.
“Obviously, Scotty’s struggling,” Pearl said. “The last three games have been a struggle for him. He’s trying. He’s working in practice. He’s probably pressing a little bit.
“And obviously, it affects his whole game, then it affects our team tremendously.”
The Trojans jumped out to a 46-36 lead early in the second half, but UT rallied to tie the score at 51 with 8:15 left. Tatum have the Vols a 56-54 lead on a 3 with 6:32 left, but USC rallied to take a 65-60 lead on a Smith 3 with 2:10 left.
The Vols battled back, going 4-of-4 from the free-throw line before Tatum’s big rebound over Stepheson gave them one last chance.
“We’re playing hard, but we’re not playing well,” Tatum said. “We’ve got to turn this around. We’re better than this.”
The Vols can salvage a small amount of momentum before their brief Christmas break if they can beat Belmont — whom they narrowly held off last month in an early-round NIT game — on Thursday in Thompson-Boling.
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.