LEXINGTON, Ky. —- The next giant step for Darrin Horn’s fast-maturing South Carolina basketball program was actually about eight steps from the Gamecocks’ basket at Rupp Arena on Saturday.
That is where Devan Downey made the biggest play of the game, sinking an 8-foot jump shot with 3.2 seconds remaining to give USC an electrifying 78-77 victory against 24th-ranked Kentucky and silencing the crowd of 24,322.
“We were really fortunate to make the last play and we were able to get the win,” the USC coach said. “It is obviously a very good win for our team and program for a lot of reasons.”
Those reasons begin with USC winning its first Southeastern Conference road game of the season. As long as USC continues to hold serve at home, where it is 4-0, it is imperative to win road games in order to seriously challenge for the SEC title.
USC improved to 16-4 overall and 5-2 in the conference. The Gamecocks are tied with Kentucky, which fell to 16-6 overall and 5-2 in the league. Florida was atop the SEC East with a 5-1 record before its late game at Tennessee.
The win carried historical significance because of how Rupp Arena has been a house of horrors for USC. The Gamecocks’ lone win in 22 previous games at Kentucky came in the 1996-97 season.
The win carries a sense of legitimacy for USC, which now stands an outside chance of inching into the national polls.
“It was a big win, a big conference win,” said guard Zam Fredrick, “just to get people to believe that we’re legitimate, a team that needs to be looked at as a force. We’re probably not getting enough respect, we feel. But we feel that if we keep winning games that will talk for us.”
This was a game of runs. USC scored nine consecutive points midway through the first half, and Kentucky countered with a 10-1 stretch. The Wildcats went on a nine-point spree early in the second half, and USC countered with a 13-point binge.
Fredrick’s first-half shooting kept USC in the game. He finished with 23 points. Then Downey heated up in the second half, scoring nine of USC’s points during its 13-point spree.
It appeared Kentucky might win when Perry Stevenson stepped to the free-throw line with 29.6 seconds remaining and the Wildcats leading 77-76. But Stevenson, a 74 percent free-throw shooter this season, missed both attempts.
USC called time out with 22.2 seconds left. As time was winding down, Dominique Archie came from the baseline and set a screen for Downey, who dribbled toward the basket and launched his game-winner.
“I got a pretty good look and stepped up to make the play,” said Downey, who finished with 23 points and drew the praise of Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie.
“We had no answer (for Downey), and had nobody who wanted any part of him,” Gillispie said. “He is a really good player, and played great today. Their guys followed instructions the way they were supposed to, and that is why they played tougher and smarter than us.”
Those are words USC has not often heard following games at Rupp Arena, but words that might have signaled a signature win for Horn’s program.
"We need to be tougher and more physical out there," Patterson said. "We rush our opportunities and make careless mistakes."