STORY: Gamecocks whip Georgia traveled to Athens, Ga., to cover the South Carolina-Georgia men's basketball game.
ATHENS, Ga. -- South Carolina didn't win many points for beauty, but South Carolina won, and it needed a win a lot more than looking good doing it.
The Gamecocks hammered Georgia 68-51 on Saturday to finish the regular season at 21-8, 10-6 in the SEC. The question remains if that record by itself is good enough to clinch a spot in the NCAA tournament, regardless of what happens at next week's SEC tournament, but some other looming queries were answered.
Specifically, if USC could put aside its last two games on an extremely short turnaround and play well at a place where it recently hasn't.
Yes, to all.
"We just felt like the way we played the last two games was not who we are," coach Darrin Horn said. "Tonight we were focused on coming out and playing great defense. Focus and energy and emotion and just look like the team that we've been really, for most of this year. We felt like if we did that, we'd put ourselves in position to have an opportunity to win."
USC broke an ugly eight-point game open with the only stretch of fundamental basketball it needed. Helped by the Bulldogs (12-19, 3-13) not being able to hit from anywhere, the Gamecocks stretched the lead to as much as 20 in the game's final 10 minutes.
As the Gamecocks exited the court, they were pumping fists, laughing, smiling. In short, they were a galaxy away from the trudging, here-we-go-again expressions after listless back-to-back drops against Vanderbilt and Tennessee.
"We wanted to come out here and just play hard," said forward Evka Baniulis, who had 11 points and showed a new tenacity on defense, with seven rebounds. "Last year, at this time, the season was over. (This is) a great feeling."
The Gamecocks' NCAA destination isn't cinched, but it could be looking a lot grimmer. With only their third at-least 10-win SEC season in school history, 21 total victories and an RPI in the Top 50, USC seems to be in good shape.
They'll next play against Georgia, Ole Miss or Mississippi State at 3:15 p.m. on Friday at the SEC tournament. More wins there won't hurt, but until they get the chance to play again, the Gamecocks will enjoy the feeling of a terrific season that saw them finish well above their predicted fifth.
"I couldn't be prouder of this team," Horn said. "They've responded, really, to every challenge. Coming off two losses where we didn't play like we needed to, coming on the road to a team that was playing really well, coming off a huge win, on Senior Day, heading into the tournament, to play like we did, I just think it's a real testament to our players' toughness and pride."
A wretched first half of basketball had the Gamecocks ahead 27-23 at the break, not finding many buckets but making the ones they had to in order to stay ahead. Their defense wasn't limiting shots -- the Bulldogs took 36 -- but for whatever reason, Georgia's shots wouldn't fall.
After scorching the nets at Rupp Arena in their last game, the Dawgs were freezing in their own gym. They only made nine field goals in the first, leading scorer Terrance Woodbury held to four points, and Devan Downey was providing the Gamecocks' wiggle room.
Halftime brought a re-emphasis on tighter defense and the Gamecocks responded by locking down on the four Bulldogs around Woodbury. Woodbury kept shooting, trying to break his malaise in his last home game, but never could find the handle.
The Gamecocks waited until 13 minutes remained and took off.
Downey began with a steal and drive to the rim, which he repeated on the very next play. He missed on the second, but Baniulis was there to clean it up.
Austin Steed converted a three-point play and Zam Fredrick got the ball at the top of the key after some nifty passing. He knocked in a 3-pointer and USC led by 16.
USC continued playing unselfish ball, trying to milk the clock but still run its offense. A blur of 3s kept the lead comfortable and everybody got to contribute, until even Horn was excitedly waving his arms on the sideline.
Downey finished with 23 while Fredrick had 15. Sam Muldrow responded after two bad games to finish with five rebounds and four blocks.
And perhaps most welcome, Mike Holmes returned from a meltdown against Tennessee with his sixth double-double.
"Just mentally," Holmes said, describing his re-commitment toward keeping his game in control. "Working in practice, going through a lot of mental stuff. I was getting a little frustrated."
The Gamecocks walked out of Stegeman Coliseum with smiles shining through the overcast afternoon. Their seeding in the SEC tournament was secure, they had played a good second half after a bad first, they knew their NCAA status got a necessary boost. They also knew that if Alabama beats Tennessee on Sunday, they'll share the SEC East championship with the Vols, but even if they don't get it, they'll still be in Tampa, Fla., next week for a chance to notch another milestone.
The Gamecocks are the only team in the league to never win the SEC tournament. In a season where yearly hopes have become realities week after week, perhaps one more is possible.
"Different people say different things," Baniulis shrugged. "We needed to come in here and win today to get our confidence back."