The game was lost, but nothing else was.
South Carolina is in great position. At 19-5 (9-2 SEC), the No. 19 Gamecocks are tied for first in the SEC and a lock in NCAA tournament projections. They’re not a “last four in” or “on the bubble,” they’re in, as high as a No. 5 seed in one faux bracket.
They know the nagging feeling hovering around Columbia, though, and recognize it. This was how it began last year, with a loss to a low-RPI opponent. The fans have their anxiety, but if the team had any, it was addressed head-on.
“We all hurt in the locker room, and the first response was, ‘You got to come into practice ready to work and can’t turn this into two in a row, and do whatever we got to do to be prepared for Saturday,’ ” Sindarius Thornwell said.
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It’s a tight line to walk, trying to keep the pressure of Saturday’s game at Mississippi State (14-9, 5-6) on the same wavelength as any other game but knowing how important it is. The Bulldogs are a heavy 114 in the RPI.
“No,” declared senior Justin McKie. “I wouldn’t say it’s a must-win … because you want to go win every game.”
USC heads to Starkville recovered from a grueling four-overtime loss to Alabama, where just enough went wrong to keep the Gamecocks from their 20th victory. Coach Frank Martin blamed himself for pushing USC too hard in practice for the previous game against Georgia, but McKie wasn’t buying it.
“You can’t shoot 29 percent and win a game. You can’t miss (15) free throws and win a game,” he said. “That wasn’t on coach. That was on us.”
Poor shooting nights happen, even when Thornwell (44 points!) did everything he could to pull USC out of its self-dug hole. The Gamecocks were more concerned with fixing their defense, which continues to lead the SEC but has allowed two straight opponents to shoot at least 42 percent from the field.
Against Georgia, that was uncomfortable but excused, considering the unstoppable paint presence of Yante Maten and the hit-anything talent of J.J. Frazier. Alabama, though, shot 42 percent despite being the league’s next-to-last shooting team.
Change or slip in the Gamecocks’ defensive principles?
“Yeah,” Thornwell said. “Us fouling.”
The Bulldogs have the same kind of big, physical bodies as Alabama, and Quinndary Weatherspoon would be a serious candidate for SEC Player of the Year if MSU’s record was better. As usual, the Gamecocks’ paint presence will depend on Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar staying on the floor.
Thornwell can’t be depended on for 44 a night, but he’ll do it if he has to. He has to get some help from P.J. Dozier and Duane Notice. The entire team will say it won’t think of numbers and standings and projections, but they will be a constant presence over the next seven games.
The Gamecocks know what they must do, and what they can’t afford to do. “It’s one game,” Thornwell said of Alabama. “It’s not the end of the world.”
No, but USC can see it from where it stands, and has no desire to approach it.
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Who: No. 19 USC (19-5, 9-2 SEC) at Miss. State (14-9, 5-6)
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville, Miss.
Radio: 107.5 FM
South Carolina’s probable starters: G P.J. Dozier 6-6 So. (14.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg); G Sindarius Thornwell 6-5 Sr. (20.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg); G Duane Notice 6-2 Sr. (10.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg); F Maik Kotsar 6-10 Fr. (6.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg); F Chris Silva 6-9 So. (9.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
Mississippi State’s probable starters: G Lamar Peters 6-0 Fr. (12.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg); G Quinndary Weatherspoon 6-4 So. (17.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg); G Mario Kegler 6-7 Fr. (10.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg); F Aric Holman 6-10 So. (8.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg); C Schnider Herard 6-10 Fr. (5.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
Next game: South Carolina hosts Arkansas at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.