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November 25, 2008Another big test, another convincing win.
South Carolina could get used to this.
The Gamecocks thumped Gardner-Webb 85-70 on Tuesday, taking advantage of the ice-cold but still living-up-to-their-name Runnin' Bulldogs' streaky shooting and their own continued defensive tenacity. USC fell behind early but took control with just under five minutes to play in the first half, building the lead to nine at halftime and 15 by the finale.
When it was over, coach Darrin Horn said his usual -- pleased with some things, not so pleased with some others. But he was proud of how USC passed its biggest test thus far, especially heading into a treacherous week of scarce practice time (Thanksgiving holiday) and USC's first two road games.
"We knew coming into this game it would be our stiffest test so far," Horn said. "This is a team that's difficult to play against, because of how they play and how they shoot the basketball. Over a 40-minute period, our defensive effort, though not great all the way through, just kept trying to find a way to grind it out and get the game a little bit more the way we wanted it."
Devan Downey led the Gamecocks (4-0) with 25 points, 20 in the second half, and provided the steadiness down the stretch that kept USC comfortably in front. But it was Downey's backcourt mate, Zam Fredrick, who ignited the Gamecocks for the second straight game.
Fredrick scored nine points on five consecutive possessions in the first half to turn a short-lived 26-26 tie into a lead the Gamecocks wouldn't relinquish. USC trailed for the first time all season before Fredrick got hot, but as he did against USC Upstate last week, he hit a stretch where he couldn't miss.
"It's just how it's going," Fredrick said. "When Devan steps out of the game (Downey picked up his second foul at the 4:51 mark) and I'm out there, I feel like I got to, not force the issue, but make something happen. Fortunately the last couple of games I'm able to get hot and run off eight to nine points and give our team a spark.
"That's my job as a captain as well as a leader. Coach says bring the energy and the way I bring energy is to play D, get out and make a shot."
Horn warned his troops about not getting lulled into Gardner-Webb's game, where the Bulldogs (0-4) could make an opponent work to get a shot, then give up an easy deuce in transition. G-W shocked the world last year by beating Kentucky and had lost its previous three games this year by a combined eight points, including a narrow four-point drop to then-No. 12 Oklahoma.
USC got into early trouble by missing shots and not picking up the open man when it collapsed on the ball-handler. That led to a 17-11 deficit at the 12:02 mark before Fredrick took over.
Although the Bulldogs never gave up, USC kept hitting shot after shot to keep a 10-point lead intact. Once G-W began fouling in a futile attempt to extend the game, the Gamecocks improved their free throw shooting (50 percent at halftime became 56.5 for the game) and hit cruise control.
Fredrick finished with 18 points and a career-high eight rebounds. Mike Holmes contributed 13 points and another nine boards, including six offensively. Horn pointed out everyone else who brought something to the table, a welcome sight with only nine available players for the third straight game.
"I think the other thing you take from this game is you had so many different people contribute in so key ways," Horn said. "Austin Steed comes off the bench and gets 11 boards. Branden Conrad was terrific tonight. Played within himself, took the right shots, knocked them down. I thought Robert Wilder changed the atmosphere of the game with a couple of hustle plays he made coming off the bench.
"Doing the little things. Here's a guy (Wilder) whose stat line is empty, except for a foul and a turnover and one steal, yet I think he impacted the game. Those are positives we want to keep seeing. I think a lot of guys gave us that."
It all helped wipe away the other interesting stats. USC handily won the rebounding battle, 52-41, but forced less turnovers (14) than it committed (17). Gardner-Webb had 11 steals, USC seven, all of which combined Horn to remove his suit jacket for the first time all year and toss it onto a chair.
Still, the Gamecocks recognized a similar team to themselves and forced it into playing their game. Gardner-Webb's Jonathan Moore would drive to the basket after a long USC possession; Downey equaled it with a deuce and a foul. Grayson Flittner dialed long-distance for a 3-pointer; Conrad would connect on 3-of-4 attempts for a career-high nine points.
And then when USC had the game going its way, it kept an eye on the clock and realized what Gardner-Webb could do with a quick throwaway. The Gamecocks wisely played ball-control, ran the seconds and took a shot only when they had to, most of which negated a Bulldogs score on the previous possession.
"We were just trying to play hard," Holmes said. "I knew we had to turn it up a notch and play physical."
USC improved to 4-0 for the first time since the 2004-05 season and Horn moved into second place on the Gamecocks' all-time coaching list in one category. He has won the second-most number of games to start his USC career in the school's history, and can tie the leader (Johnnie McMillan, 1944-45) with a win at College of Charleston on Friday.
Naturally, Horn said he was just looking for his team to keep improving. In terms of doing what they've been asked to do, Horn said, the Gamecocks are doing great.
But that will only produce so much once the season gets further along.
"Teams are never where coaches want them to be," he said. "We obviously have a very challenging test on Friday."