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February 22, 2009

Hoops: Gamecocks aren't going away

Another small piece that South Carolina basketball may have perhaps turned the corner was revealed on Saturday -- the Gamecocks aren't shrinking when the game gets tight.

Arkansas took a 44-41 lead with 10:45 to play on Saturday and it could have been over. As forward Dominique Archie pointed out a day before, it was at this point of the season last year where everybody had pretty much packed it in.

But as proven again, this sure isn't last year.

USC rallied to force overtime, stopping SEC Freshman of the Year contender Courtney Fortson on a game-winning drive to the hoop. Devan Downey stripped Fortson and Archie dove on the loose ball, keeping enough wits about him to call timeout as soon as he had it snagged.

Then Zam Fredrick, who didn't have even an average night from the field, swished a 3-pointer for the overtime lead immediately after the Razorbacks' Rotnei Clarke had put his team ahead. Evka Baniulis shot another 3 and Downey and Fredrick took it home, making all six of their final free throws.

The case could be argued that since USC won its 19th game on Saturday, it should have been a rout. Arkansas came into the matchup with 10 losses in its last 11 games, including six straight.

Agreed?

"Absolutely not," coach Darrin Horn said. "It's a win in February in league play."

The Gamecocks (19-6, 8-4 SEC) have not played at their best level in the past three games, but they've won two of them and lost the other by five on the road. It is slightly concerning that two of those opponents (Alabama and Arkansas) inhabit the cellar of the SEC West, but USC beat both of them.

But there's no looking around for the other shoe to drop because, as guard Brandis Raley-Ross put it, the team believes it's not going to.

"We've built a mentality. We know we can win every game," he said recently. "We're down 10 with a minute left, we're all looking at each other knowing we're going to win a game. (Last year,) being down four with 30 seconds left, knowing in your mind that you've already lost four or five of them … not the same."

Winning breeds confidence and Horn has taken a great approach to it. The record is wonderful because he thought all along the Gamecocks were capable of it, but it's not finalized. While division title and NCAA tournament talks swirl around his program, Horn keeps stressing that neither he nor his team pay any attention to it.

"We can't control that," Horn said. "We can only control what we do. Keeping it focused on that, and being our best, is what's most important this time of year."

Even if they haven't been at their best lately, they've kept winning. It's been a long, long time since any USC basketball team could say that.

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