USC’s Devan Downey, in preparation for Tuesday night's game against Gardner-Webb, kept telling his teammates to be on guard:
"Don't let the name on the jersey fool you; these guys are for real."
But the name on the jersey was probably enough, given what the Bulldogs have done lately: a monumental upset last season of Kentucky, a near-upset this past weekend of No. 12 Oklahoma and a four-point loss at Virginia Tech on Nov. 14.
Properly warned, South Carolina made sure it didn’t become an entry on Gardner-Webb’s resume, coming away with an 85-70 victory.
There was drama in the first half, and for the first time at USC, coach Darrin Horn had to take off his suit jacket. Otherwise, it was another rout of a weaker opponent for the Gamecocks men's basketball team.
USC (4-0) trailed by as many as five before pulling away late in the first half. Gardner-Webb (0-4) twice drew within eight in the second half, but USC answered each time.
Downey said it almost felt good to be in a closer game, after the Gamecocks won their first three games by an average margin of 19.3 points. But a tougher schedule awaits, starting Friday at College of Charleston.
"It's just all a process. You're not gonna run away (from) teams every night, especially not in our league," Downey said. "So that was a good test for the team, to finally have some adversity."
It was Downey who played a major role in making sure the adversity didn’t produce a loss.
The junior point guard scored 20 of his 25 points in the second half. That came after a halftime talk in which Horn called out Downey for his poor defensive play.
"I felt like we kind of needed an offensive boost, so I stepped up. But it all started on the defensive end as a team," Downey said. "We really picked our defense up and started guarding them and didn't give them the open looks."
Zam Fredrick added 18 points and eight rebounds for USC. The Gamecocks held Gardner-Webb to 31 percent shooting, including 28 percent on 3-pointers.
The game turned physical in the second half, leading Horn to shed his suit jacket. The teams combined for 52 free throws.
"We knew this would be our stiffest test so far," Horn said. "This is a team that's difficult to play against."
While Gardner-Webb provided a challenge, it probably presented a favorable matchup for South Carolina. Both teams play an up-tempo style, and once USC gained control of the boards, the game swung its way.
"We know we've still got a lot to prove to the people in the country and the people in our city,” Fredrick said. “We're just gonna keep playing hard and try and get W's in our column."
Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.