CHARLESTON - For the third straight game, South Carolina trailed most of the first half then took control after halftime.
This time, however, the mid-game drama and closing minutes were more tense. Luckily for the Gamecocks, the final result was the same: a win - and, in the minds of their coach, another step in their progress as a team.
After trailing by 10 in the first half Friday, South Carolina rallied and held on for a 69-66 victory against South Florida. USC moved on to a Sunday matchup against Miami in the Charleston Classic championship.
"I thought this was a terrific win because of how we had to win it," Horn said. "A great response from our players at halftime. ... We talked about being a team, doing the little things and continuing to play with and for each other."
South Florida (3-1) was picked to finish near the bottom of the 16-team Big East, went 9-22 last year and had not had a winning season since 2003.
But coach Stan Heath, formerly the coach at Arkansas, has assembled a talented roster. Gus Gilchrist transferred from Maryland and Mike Mercer from Georgia, while Dominique Jones was an honorable mention All-Big East pick last season.
The Gamecocks (4-0) also trailed most of the first half in its two previous games against Georgia Southern and La Salle. The Gamecocks knocked each of those teams out with big runs in the middle of the game as neither opponent proved capable of withstanding the hit.
USC could not apply the hit during the first half Friday. The Gamecocks went 0-for-8 beyond the 3-point arc, while South Florida lived off Gilchrist and Jarrid Famous, who combined to score 17 of the Bulls' first 27 points.
"It was pretty challenging," USC forward Mike Holmes said. "They're very physical, they play really hard. We just had to get together, play as a team. ... Just play the way we know how to play."
Holmes and fellow junior Sam Muldrow did that in the second half.
Before fouling out, Holmes had eight points and eight rebounds, but each seemed vital. Muldrow had four blocks in the second half as South Florida's inside baskets became scarce.
"They had us for six blocks," Horn said. "I think we had more than that or affected more of that."
The big men also played a big part on the offensive end of USC's rally, helped by a couple big 3's.
Dominique Archie hit the first 3 of the game for South Carolina, a baseline shot that drew the Gamecocks within 36-34. Then Muldrow tied it on a dunk off a loose ball picked up by Lakeem Jackson.
A couple minutes later, Holmes made a great move in the lane to convert a layup and give USC its first lead since the opening minutes.
Holmes had another big put-back a little later, giving USC a 49-43 lead. That came after a 3-pointer from Brandis Raley-Ross.
South Florida had one more run, starting with a 3 by Chris Howard.
Holmes then fouled out with 2:48 to go, but Jones blew a chance to tie it, going 1-for-4 from the line over the next two possessions. With USC up by three, Downey and Archie answered by each going 2-for-2 from the line to extend the lead back to seven.
In all, USC went 11-for-14 on free throws down the stretch.
"The important thing is we found a way to grind out a game against a really talented basketball team, by the way, and found a way to win without being pretty," Horn said. "And I think that's what good basketball teams do. I think it was a step for our team."