One goes down, somebody has to step up.
Cue Mike Holmes.
South Carolina's sophomore forward/center posted his third double-double of the season in an 80-66 win over The Citadel on Saturday, turning around a rough start in the Gamecocks' first game since guard Branden Conrad fractured his right foot. USC was behind early due to sloppy ball-handling and icy shooting, but Holmes' increased presence, the team's stellar performance from the free throw line and a return to form from Brandis Raley-Ross pushed the Gamecocks to 8-1.
"Mike played pretty good," said forward Dominique Archie (Holmes was not available afterward). "He had probably one of the best performances of anybody on the team."
Holmes just missed tying for high-scoring honors when Devan Downey canned a 3-pointer with seconds to play, giving him 17 points for the night. Still, Holmes finished with 14 points, 11 boards, four of the Gamecocks' five blocks, two steals and just one turnover, taking over in the paint after The Citadel center Demetrius Nelson threatened to turn the game into a personal NBA resume.
"He played well," Raley-Ross said. "He hit the glass hard, he battled with those big boys down there. He played tough."
Holmes didn't start for the first time all year (Austin Steed got the nod after practicing well over the past couple of days) but came off the bench at the 15-minute mark. He didn't return for quite a while.
The big man drained a 10-footer for his first points, helping stop the Gamecocks' 1-for-9 start from the floor. Then he kept mixing inside and out, taking fouls and keeping his temper in check so he could concentrate on free throws.
A 6-of-7 showing later, part of the team's 28-for-33, and Holmes was accepting his teammates' high-fives.
"I thought Mike played well," said USC coach Darrin Horn.
Horn was pleased with the win but not so happy with the way it was obtained. The Citadel out-rebounded USC 34-33 and was clearly out-playing the Gamecocks at the beginning, when the Bulldogs (5-7) shot to an 11-0 lead.
"Thought that they played harder than we did over the course of 40 minutes," Horn said. "I thought that we were good in spots and our effort, defensively, especially in the second half, was what we needed it to be and helped us get a lead that we were able to keep.
"But all in all, I thought that they played harder than we did. And that's something that we can control in terms of our effort level and we need to evaluate and make sure we understand that's something that we have to take care of every night."
After the Gamecocks took a four-point lead into the locker room, Holmes, Raley-Ross and Archie each got a turn at the free throw line at the second half's beginning. The trio made 5-of-6 and then really got cooking.
Downey fed Raley-Ross for a jumper and it was 39-31. Then Raley-Ross corralled a lazy Bulldogs pass and passed to Evka Baniulis, who drained a 3-pointer.
The lead never got below seven after that and the Gamecocks used the time to keep improving. Raley-Ross, once his first shot went down, got better on what seemed like every possession and Holmes kept up his most complete game of the year.
Raley-Ross, who only scored two points in 13 minutes during USC's last game, his first since spraining his left knee during the season-opener, scored 12 against The Citadel, one of six Gamecocks in double figures. With Conrad out and only Downey (the team's high scorer but very ordinary on Saturday, with a 5-for-15 night), Fredrick and Robert Wilder available, it was good to see Raley-Ross shedding the malaise from his long layoff.
"Just being at a comfort level," Raley-Ross said. "Just getting out there playing. Once I broke the ice and made those two free throws ... just confidence, man."
Free throws played a big part in the win, USC using them to keep pace early, get ahead middle and stay in front late. The Gamecocks only missed five from the stripe all night and as the personal fouls mounted on The Citadel, the game began turning.
"They kept the pressure on us," Bulldogs coach Ed Conroy said. "They made a lot of hustle plays, athletic plays. They kind of wore us down a little bit."
Another win after another injury, but Horn nor his team were patting themselves on the back. One comeback against The Citadel doesn't equal wins against the Clemsons or Baylors or Tennessees or Floridas.
"Just disappointed that our focus wasn't what it needed to be," Horn said. "We've got to make sure we're ready to play."