There is one thing that South Carolina basketball can count on every game without fail – Devan Downey will come to play. Other than Downey, the team came out lackluster against Georgia in the first half, but the second half the Gamecocks made a statement in notching their 10th SEC win of the season. Downey again made a statement that of all the contenders for SEC Player of the Year, he is the one who plays the most consistently and means the most to his team.
The Gamecocks entered the game needing a boost of self confidence after being manhandled in two consecutive SEC games by Vanderbilt and Tennessee respectively. "We just felt like the way we played the last two games was not who we are," USC Coach Darrin Horn said. "Tonight we were focused on coming out and playing great defense - focus and energy and emotion and just to look like the team that we have been, really, for most of this year. We felt like if we did that, we'd put ourselves in position to have an opportunity to win."
Georgia entered the game as the last place team in the SEC East, but in their previous game had gone into vaunted Rupp Arena and come out with a win over the Kentucky Wildcats. Terrance Woodbury was the Bulldog’s star in the win over Kentucky, scoring 30 points, but the Gamecock defense held him to 2 of 12 shots for 4 points in the first half, and 9 points on 4-for-21 shooting in his final home game. Georgia interim Coach Pete Herrmann said, “He played great against Kentucky, but he had a tough game today." Both teams played sluggishly in the first half, playing like they were knee deep in miry Georgia clay. USC led at the half 27-23.
The Gamecocks took off their clodhopper boots and put on their track shoes in the second half, playing more like a Darrin Horn style team the more they played. “I think the great news was that (although) we weren’t good offensively in the first half in terms of some shots not going down and maybe not getting as much movement as we would like, but we didn’t let it affect us on the defensive end,” said Horn. “That is why this team has been good and found a way to win ten games in the SEC, because we had that attitude. In the second half the offense started to flow a little bit more because we maintained our defensive focus.”
Downey’s play was consistent throughout the game and he scored almost the same number of points in both halves. Evka Baniulis had only one three point basket in the first half, but finished with 11 points on 4 of 6 shooting, hitting three 3’s and collecting seven rebounds. He was clearly happy when talking about the win, saying, “"We wanted to come out and play hard. We needed to get back our confidence and this was a perfect game for that."
Carolina’s other starting guard Zam Fredrick had 15 points, including four of five three point attempts. USC has been led by its guard play this season, and when the team has struggled, it has largely been when the Gamecocks’ front court was outmanned. Center Mike Holmes admitted some “mental” stress after the previous two games. Tennessee outrebounded USC by 20 boards Thursday. "I was getting a little frustrated,” he said. (It was) just mental.”
Horn credited Holmes' play in the second half as a major part of the win, saying, “I really think our defense collectively, but his big rebounds and a couple finishes on the other end kind of in a short span really gave us a boost to start the second half to extend the lead. Mike was just being Mike, getting to the glass being aggressive. Downey also praised his big teammate, saying, “If you don’t get a body on him, he is pretty sure he is going to get the tip back, just being Mike Holmes.”
Georgia outrebounded the Gamecocks 49-39, but poor shooting by the Bulldogs negated their advantage there. The Gamecocks outshot them 43.5% to 27.3%, and a sterling 71.4% from three point land in the second half, and fatally hurt the Dawgs, who only shot 18.2% from three point range for the game.
The accolades for probable consensus SEC 1st team player Downey continue. “Devan was the best he has been since the Kentucky game, he just completely changed the game with how he pressured the basketball and I think the rest of the guys followed suit,” said Horn. Downey was a little tougher on himself: “We really had to get back to the basics defensively, and I really let my team down Thursday as far as bringing energy and intensity,” he said. “I told myself I wasn’t going to let that happen and that I was going to come out and set the tone defensively and the team would follow. (Coach) challenged me to bring that defensive intensity because you know what I'm going to give him on offense."
Chris Barnes and Trey Thompkins each had 10 points for Georgia (12-19, 3-13). USC is now 21-8 and finished the SEC regular season 10-6. It is only the third time since the Gamecocks joined the conference in 1992 that they have won ten conference games. Every SEC team that has been eligible for post-season play and has won at least ten games in conference play has made the NCAA tournament since the 1991 season, the year before USC began SEC play. Georgia had an 11-5 record in 2003, but was not eligible for the tournament that year due to NCAA probation under former coach Jim Harrick.
Having already secured the second seed in the SEC East and a first round bye in the SEC Tournament, the Gamecocks do not have to take the court again until next Friday at 3:15 p.m. when they will face the winner of the Georgia–Mississippi State game on Thursday.
Horn called the win "huge" for the team's postseason hopes. "We knew all the implications and all the talk out there about that, but more important than that, we wanted to play well, and we felt if we did that we'd give ourselves an opportunity to win the game and take that into the (SEC) tournament, knowing at least that we played like ourselves."
Official attendance was 7110, but actual attendance was, without question, higher at Saturday’s Carolina baseball game against the LBSU Dirtbags.
USC was without guard Brandis Raley-Ross, whom Horn suspended one game for violating academic team rules. “I think it’s a start, but like I say, it’s more important that we take care of our daily task like academics,” Horn said. “If you don’t take care of your academics the way we want you to, then you are not going to play. We did that with a young man today in a game that really counted, but when you are building a program and not just trying to win the next game, that is what you do. And in the long run, that foundation, in theory, will give you the opportunity to be in this position more.”