"You feelin' alright?"
It was a venture into strange territory for me on Monday evening, when I was writing my South Carolina-Ole Miss game preview. After years of writing similar stories and always finding a reason why a team was winning/losing, there wasn't an answer in a defensive set or an offensive strategy for that game.
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The Gamecocks had to make shots early. That was all.
USC had dug itself massive holes in three of its past four games and never led in any of them. In the other two games during the five-game losing streak (both on the road), the Gamecocks played pretty well but didn't have the defensive stop or two that could have meant a victory.
Throughout this season, the Gamecocks have never had an offense that could dominate the opponent. That's not how they've been constructed. Their best chance to score became the perimeter game, since they were very deficient in a true post presence.
Launch a 3-pointer or a short jumper and the height and length of USC's five stood a good chance of getting the rebound and putting it back up, or re-setting for another outside shot. The Gamecocks lead the SEC in offensive rebounding because it was stressed to them since the preseason that that was the best way for them to consistently score, since they had no superstar individual and lacked the experience, savvy and sheer brute strength to bang around in the lane.
That kind of approach, for really all but a couple of games, at least kept the Gamecocks competitive, even when they didn't win much. But during the losing streak, USC couldn't ever get it started until it was far too late. The Gamecocks were playing uphill the entire way and could never string enough baskets together with a stop or two to put fear into the opponent.
Against Ole Miss, USC started cold but so did the Rebels. But once Chris Warren cooled off as USC applied better defense (Eric Smith's growth on Tuesday cannot be charted), the Gamecocks began to get into the best game.
A putback from Malik Cooke started it and the Gamecocks began to hit their shots. Sam Muldrow, Smith, Brian Richardson and Bruce Ellington combined for five straight makes, Ellington's off-the-glass shot tying the game at 23.
That bred confidence and more importantly, kept the game manageable. Although USC threw away a 14-point lead in just over six minutes, the fact that it had a 14-point lead to throw away was impressive.
"I think that's a really good sign," coach Darrin Horn said. "We had four guys in double figures. Bruce only had six points, but we still scored 79. Those are things that are all positive signs of where this team is heading and the good things that are going on with this program."
It hasn't been an easy season for Horn, but he and most everybody else who is either involved with or follows the program knew it wouldn't be. Of course there were some complaints from the lightening bandwagon during the losing streak, mostly because a lot of perhaps misplaced confidence had been built when USC won three of its first four SEC games, including wins over SEC East frontrunners Florida and Vanderbilt.
The frustration during the losses was largely evident, simply because often the line between winning and losing involved something that game-planning and strategy had no effect on. The Gamecocks had to make early shots and keep themselves afloat for the inevitable offensive lull that hits every basketball team in every game -- even Ohio State and Duke, daily top-five contenders, go through scoreless stretches.
USC won't be going to the NCAA tournament without a miraculous run through the SEC tournament, but only the most optimistic on the periphery hoped for that anyway. The Gamecocks will be eligible for a postseason tournament with one more win, which would be another step for this team as it finishes the year away to get to the next year.
More than that, though, Tuesday gave new life to the thought that Horn's team may yet improve as the season ends. The last five games had the team playing worse than it did at the beginning, Horn saying that youth, inexperience and injuries weren't excuses. A dark cloud was settling over the program, considering that this year was supposed to be a building year and it looked to be deconstructing as the season progressed.
Tuesday didn't erase the last five games, but it helped soothe the low point of the season and perhaps beckon to a strong end. The Gamecocks have known all along what they have to do to win -- now that it has worked once more, they have a fresh memory of how it can impact the game.
USC had fun on Tuesday. It again proved that if nothing else, this team knows how to handle a late-game opposing run and still come out on top.
Now to consistently be on top so it can be in position to keep coming out on top.
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