South Carolina won -- because of free throws.
Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick combined for a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line in the final seconds of a wild win over Arkansas on Saturday, providing the final cushion in an 82-78 overtime thriller. The Gamecocks, the second-worst team in the SEC from the stripe, avoided a dubious loss to a hapless Razorbacks squad because, for one of the few times all season, they were nothing but net when handed the ball and no defender in their faces.
And boy, did they ever need it. Until the two guards saved the day from the line, USC faced the prospect of losing its perfect league home record to an Arkansas team that was 1-10 in its last 11 games.
"When everybody was saying we couldn't shoot free throws, we just keep believing," Downey said. "Just step up to the line and make them."
Forced into overtime after Fredrick's 3-pointer at the regulation buzzer bounced wide, the Gamecocks held the lead for most of the extra session. Arkansas (13-12, 1-11 SEC) refused to die, though, and kept rallying for a tie ballgame.
Jason Henry hit to make it 74-all with 1:26 to play, but Dominique Archie put back Downey's missed twister for a lead with 56 ticks left. Clarke missed a 3; Downey was fouled with 12 seconds on the clock.
He was only 1-of-3 for the night, 73.3 percent for the year. Yet Downey calmly toed the line and sank both shots.
The joy was short-lived -- Henry hit the last of his career-high 27 points on a 3-pointer with a hand in his face. The Gamecocks led by one, 6.1 seconds to go, and as the ball was inbounded to Fredrick, he was immediately fouled.
The senior had not had a good night (4-of-15 from the field). Didn't matter -- like Downey before him, Fredrick swish-swished for a three-point lead.
Downey fouled Henry before he could shoot, putting the freshman on the line for one-and-one, and Henry made his first shot. The second shot missed but was wiped anyway when the Razorbacks stepped into the lane early, negating the desperation rim-bounce-for-a-last-field-goal ploy.
Downey was fouled off the ball and put back on the line. Seeking to end it, Downey's 24th and 25th points disappeared through the net.
Mercifully, at last, it was over. Tough game, ugly win, but the only thing that counts at the end of the season is the "W" in the column.
"Guess we're not going to be boring for anybody," coach Darrin Horn quipped.
The win pushed USC to 19-6 (8-4 SEC) and improved its home SEC record to a glittering 6-0. USC found a way to win when it did not flow well offensively, where Archie had an extremely off night, where they were out-rebounded 46-29 and almost beaten by a sixth man (Henry) instead of the potential SEC Freshman of the Year (Courtney Fortson).
And they still found a way.
"I struggled from the field tonight," said Archie, who scored eight points, six on putbacks. "I couldn't get into the flow of the game offensively."
Scalded by Henry and four 3-pointers from Rotnei Clarke, the Razorbacks turned a nine-point deficit into a 41-41 tie with 11:10 to play. Clarke buried another 3 and Arkansas was up 44-41.
But Holmes and Archie began putting back missed shots and USC stayed with the Hogs, until Archie rebounded a missed Fredrick layup and tipped it in for a 66-66 game with 30.9 seconds to play. Fortson drove but was stripped on his way to the hole by Downey, and with a loose ball rolling free in the lane, Archie never hesitated.
Seventy-nine inches of Augusta-bred muscle hit the paint and rolled over on the ball. With it in his hands, Archie frantically trained his eyes upward and pleaded for timeout.
"I knew one of us had to do it," he said. "There were four of us in the lane."
USC got the ball but Fredrick missed the game-winner to bring up overtime. Fredrick scored the Gamecocks' first five points, Evka Baniulis canned his fourth 3-pointer, Archie put back another miss and then it was the Hogs putting USC on the line to win it.
Horn said he wasn't thinking about it. "I think we've done that some at other times this year. You guys can keep harping on that if you want," he said.
Baniulis was confident in his teammates. "Good feeling," he said. "Sometimes you just have to shoot the ball."
Downey, who made four of the final six, had no doubt.
"You're going to miss them, you're going to make them," he said. "Tonight, we had some big guys other than myself step up … and make their free throws."