ATLANTA - Thirteenth-seeded South Carolina avenged setbacks on the court and off with a dominating 74-56 win over No. 12 seed Auburn in the first round of the SEC Tournament at the Georgia Dome.
In a victory that served as a redemption for both head coach Frank Martin and freshman guard Duane Notice, the subject and object of the verbal exchange that led to Martin's one-game suspension, both had triumphant outcomes.
Martin accomplished something his predecessor Darrin Horn never did - win a game in Atlanta - while Notice scored a career-high 23 points to pace the Gamecocks (13-19) who advance to face Arkansas tomorrow at approximately 3:30 p.m. Brent Williams was second on the team in scoring with 16 points.
As a team, South Carolina also avenged two earlier losses to the Tigers, who fell to 14-16, and have now won three of their last four games.
"I'm extremely proud of our guys, especially (Notice and Williams)," Martin said. "Their willingness to continue to grow and embrace every challenge that's been thrown at them all year.
"(Williams), I'm so happy for him in his senior year, the growth that he's shown. And obviously Duane, who has been asked to play out of position, and he's been so upbeat in taking on that responsibility. You ask your guys to get better every day, to understand that at this time of year the team that makes the fewest mistakes wins.
"And at this time of year, it's all about the kids. It's not any more about lessons being taught or things of that nature. It's about preparing your team to play its best game that it's played all year tonight. We probably played as well as we have played all year. And now we get to live another day and that's all you ask for at this time of year."
Notice's 23 points bested his previous career-high of 19 set on Jan. 29 at home against Texas A&M. His effort was boosted by his 3-point shooting, where he went 4-for-4. As a team, the Gamecocks shot a season-high 11-15 3-pt (73.3 %), good for second-best in school history.
"I was just feeling good," Notice said. "Shootaround, trying to get some extra shots in after and before practice, just listening to what the coaches had to say on my shot (helped).
"Definitely before the game, Coach Matt Figger was helping me with my shot. I wanted to go out and play with confidence because I wanted to extend my senior's career here at South Carolina."
South Carolina effectively controlled Auburn's duo of Chris Denson and KT Harrell. In Columbia in February, the pair combined to score 50 points, while two weeks ago in Alabama they combined for 33. Wednesday in Atlanta, the pair scored 27, with only 17 of those points coming from the field goals. Denson said the Gamecocks effectively shut down his driving lanes all game long.
"They know I'm a driver, so they collapsed the lane," said Denson, who led Auburn with 14 points. "I didn't really explode or go to the hole until the second half, but it was just a little too late.
"They definitely clogged the paint more this game. The first two games, I felt like I was tiptoeing to the hole, but they definitely scouted well and they definitely took my driving lanes away."
"The key is defending Denson and Harrell," Williams said. "And thos guys, they are very great
players, and they both can score the ball at a high volume.
"That was what we were going to key on those two today. And you think we did a better job containing them. That kind of threw the team off a little bit and that was just enough to distract them a little and it gave us opportunities to run on the other end and to make plays."
The last time the Gamecocks won a game in the SEC Tournament, Dave Odom was the coach when on March 13, 2008, USC beat LSU 77-73 before falling to Tennessee by two the next day.
"We just want to keep taking steps forward building something the right way," Martin said. "It's not a race, it's not a 100-yard dash. We're not trying to set a world record for a short distance. We're trying to build it the right way.
" You got to go at things with the right resolve, with the right mindset, and making it to Game Two is another step in the right direction for our guys. It's another step in the right direction for
what we're trying to get accomplished."
The first half began with neither team taking control and playing through turnovers and fouls, though Auburn had the upper hand, leading for the first four minutes before USC took its first lead at 12-11 with 10:51 to go. Auburn briefly re-took the lead on a 3-pointer from Dion Wade, but the Gamecocks went on a 21-6 run fueled by four 3-pointers from Williams and 3 from Notice to build a 12-point halftime edge at 38-26.
In the second half USC came out on fire again from long range, getting quick 3-pointers from Michael Carrera (4 pts.) and Sindarius Thornwell (10 pts.) to push the pace, and while Denson answered with five straight points, all from the free-throw line, the Gamecocks used clutch second-half free-throw shooting from Mindaugas Kacinas (6-for-8 from the line, 8 pts, 10 rebounds) and Laimonas Chatkevicius, who hit a career-high seven free throws (7-for-8, 11 points, 9 rebounds) to ice the game as Auburn had no rally left and saw the lead balloon to as much as 21 before losing by 18.