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November 17, 2010

USC-MSU Hoops Extra

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Darrin Horn said there were several positives to take from an 82-73 loss at No. 2 Michigan State on Tuesday.

One was a pleasant surprise that keeps on giving.

Sophomore guard Stephen Spinella scored a career-high 10 points, making both of his 3-pointers and one jumper just inside the arc. It continued a solid performance from the season-opener against Elon, when he only scored four points but showed a much more aggressive approach to his game.

After a freshman season spent struggling at the one thing that he was brought in to do, and was very good at doing in high school -- shooting -- Spinella re-worked his approach over the summer. He realized that with six new faces joining South Carolina, if he couldn't prove he was worth it, minutes would be scarce.

"He's a kid that I think it's hard, when a player focus ones on one thing offensively, everything rises and falls with that," Horn said after the Elon game. "Stephen's a terrific defender, a big athletic wing. I encouraged him to be a player."

So he concentrated on defense first, then shooting. He knew the shot would be there -- it wouldn't simply disappear -- but he needed work elsewhere.

Against the Spartans, Spinella grabbed three rebounds and only had two fouls, going 3-for-5 from the field and sinking both of his free throws. He got a hand on a Kalin Lucas fast-break lay-up that turned into a deflection and a USC steal and nailed his 3-pointers when they came open.

"Coach keeps telling me not to just be a shooter, because he doesn't want me to just be a shooter," said Spinella, who got to play in front of his father on Tuesday. "He says there's more to me. He said I'm a great on-ball defender, a great defensive player and that's what I need to lock into in order to be a good player."

Spinella looks a lot quicker these days, but says he didn't lose any weight. It was more just getting used to the college game and finding out being fast on defense would translate into a quicker set for his shot.

"From freshman year, I'm used to the game now," he said, after also logging a career-high 21 minutes. "It's just becoming easier."

DOWN IN A HOLE: The Gamecocks matched Michigan State almost point-for-point at the beginning of the game, but two fouls on forward Sam Muldrow took away a large chunk of the offense. USC struggled to run any offensive set due to the Spartans' bulky defenders, and when the Gamecocks did penetrate, they often couldn't put enough touch on their shots to finish them.

"We didn't run at all like we were capable of," Horn said. "We couldn't press, because we weren't scoring well."

Part of the problem is that Horn is still finding answers to who works best in certain sets and who he needs to be his go-to player. Bruce Ellington certainly seems capable of the latter, after shaking off a long scoreless stretch to post 13 second-half points, but there needs to be others.

Muldrow needs to be a constant presence for the Gamecocks to be at their best, but he took a seat barely six minutes into the game. USC could still hit from outside, but the shots were often contested; when the Gamecocks tried to get to the paint, they were aggressively challenged by the Spartans and found themselves with missing touch on the ball.

"We've got plays, but we look at what the defense shows us," Ellington said. "We take what the defense is showing us and work from there."

Muldrow returned but only posted five points and two boards, having to limit himself to avoid further foul trouble. His absence from the chart led to the Spartans' forwards, Delvon Roe and Draymond Green, scoring a combined 33 points.

As for Ellington, the correctly reviewed 3-pointer that he made which was later wiped off due to a mistaken re-start of the shot clock knocked him out of his rhythm, although he re-discovered it. Ellington had scored nine points to lead the team when he hit the 3, at the 7:10 mark of the first half; after it was reversed, he missed his next three shots and didn't score until the 11:36 mark of the second.

DON'T QUIT: At 5-foot-9, Ellington will never be the tallest guy on the court, but his impressive physique doesn't have him backing down from anybody. Late in the second half, Ellington and Michigan State's Green (6-7, 230 pounds) each went for a loose ball.

Each had arms around it as the whistle blew, but neither would let go. The two each tried to rip the ball from each other, turning each other as if in a ballroom dance to the opposite elbow, before teammates and officials broke it up.

Ellington held up his hand for a high-five from Green, who returned it. Then Ellington grinned and did it again.

SIGH: Perhaps it was just something in the air, because Michigan State was awful from the free-throw line too. The Spartans were much worse than USC, clanking 17 of their 34 attempts while USC missed nine of 21.

What was concerning was that Lakeem Jackson, after looking good against Elon from the line, was 0-for-3 on Tuesday.

His struggles from the stripe have been well-documented, but Jackson seemed to have a handle on it against the Phoenix. There was no hesitation or hitch in his delivery, he just eyed, raised and shot with a light flip of his wrist.

On Tuesday, he raised and shot the same way, but put it up much too hard. All three clanged off the back iron.

PAINT: Michigan State had a red, white and blue "11-11-11" painted on the floor near the USC bench. It's a symbol for a special promotion next year that hasn't been cemented, but is getting to that point.

The Spartans have agreed, as part of a Veterans Day promotion next year, to play North Carolina on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, moored in Jacksonville, Fla., is set to host a doubleheader on the unusual court, with Navy and Air Force in the other game.

The games have been reported by Michigan State websites, but coach Tom Izzo hasn't definitely confirmed it.

NOT EASY BEING GREEN: Michigan State has two notable connections with USC.

The Spartans' greatest player, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, led MSU to the 1979 national championship. His sister, Evelyn "Sweet E" Johnson, played at USC from 1979-83.

MSU football coach Mark Dantonio is a USC alum. He played under coach Jim Carlen from 1976-78.

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