An off night from Zam Fredrick couldn't cool off South Carolina.
The Gamecocks won their second straight game on Saturday, cruising past Ole Miss 82-71 and rising back above .500 in the SEC. Despite Fredrick, the hero of USC's stunning upset of No. 24 Florida four nights ago, only scoring nine points on 4-of-14 shooting, the Gamecocks (14-4, 3-2 SEC) got more than enough from their other usual suspects to remain perfect in league competition at Colonial Life Arena this year.
"When Zam has an off night, he knows there's 10 other guys who got his back," said Devan Downey, who led the Gamecocks with 22 points. "The rest of us step up when one of us isn't playing well."
A 23-5 spurt at the second half's beginning gave USC more than enough room to operate, mushrooming a two-point halftime lead into as much as 20 with 11:35 to play. The Gamecocks allowed the Rebels (10-9, 1-4) to cut the final score to 12 after Ole Miss leading scorer David Huertas shed his doldrums, but USC's resurgent offense and yet another knee injury pounded the Rebels into submission.
Ole Miss has already lost three guards to season-ending knee injuries this year. Terrico White tweaked his right knee and was out for the majority of the game on Saturday, putting the scoring burden on Huertas.
He ended with 27 points, but the Gamecocks were content to let him fire away as they calmly controlled the final 15 minutes. Ole Miss never got over that initial second-half run and USC won the third of its first five league games for the first time in five years.
"That's been really our pattern," sighed Rebels coach Andy Kennedy. "Other than the LSU game, which they dominated from start to finish ... we have four- or five-minute stretches where the game gets away from us."
But the game wasn't about how Ole Miss lost. It was how USC handled the emotional high from the Florida game and tried not to let it be a handicap against the Rebels.
It took a while to get started, but once the second half began, any problem thought had was quickly solved.
"Coach always stresses for us to control the first four minutes and set the tone," forward Dominique Archie said. "That's what we tried to do tonight."
Mike Holmes began it with a banging layup and was followed by Sam Muldrow's cleanup putback of Fredrick's missed jumper. Muldrow made the shot while being fouled, one of three instances on the night.
He was followed by Archie's 3-pointer, then a Downey kiss off the glass, then a Muldrow finish off a Fredrick assist. Ole Miss called two timeouts in less than a minute to stop the assault, but the strategy fell apart as the Gamecocks continued to hit.
Holmes and Archie connected on back-to-back shots and the lead was 14 with 14:50 left to play. The Gamecocks never wilted on defense until Huertas put the rest of the team on his back, but by then, the game was safely in hand.
Another win and another small step for coach Darrin Horn, whose concern about his team pulling even after two straight conference losses was addressed.
"Obviously, our run to start the second half was key to the game," Horn said. "It was fueled by our defense. Got a couple of shots to go down and we got ourselves a cushion."
All wasn't peachy, which is why Horn nor his teammates were patting themselves on their backs too loudly. USC was once again horrendous from the free throw line (11-of-27) and bad shot selection throughout the first half let the Rebels hang around.
But Muldrow again showed off a rapidly improving presence after being sidelined for the season's first 13 games. Evka Baniulis (eight points) and Brandis Raley-Ross(seven points) stepped up in the absence of Fredrick's usual production. The Gamecocks again had to battle a taller, longer team on the glass and fought throughout, never ceding too many wounds.
"Always good to see when other people step up," Archie said. "Now we've won two in a row in the SEC, and I know we didn't do that last year."
"I think our focus was there," Downey agreed. "Our mindset was we were going to be better than we were (against Florida)."