David Cloninger

After 850 games, Gators’ 3-point streak ends against Gamecocks

It was astounding to read. Florida had made at least one 3-pointer for 850 straight games – a span stretching across a quarter-century and three coaches – before going 0-for-17 in a loss at South Carolina on Wednesday.

The Gamecocks’ defense, which leads the country in 3-point percentage defense, has come that far in less than a year.

“We were consistent with what we’ve done all year,” coach Frank Martin said. “We’ve taken the 3-point shot away from people, and a big reason for that is our on-ball defense, the growth of our players and our bigs. We’re doing a better job of keeping the ball in front of us.”

The 3-point shot was an Achilles heel for last year’s Gamecocks. Their defense was solid, but keeping the ball on the perimeter was a headache.

It was a script. A guard would drive, USC would collapse two or three men on him as he hit the paint, and he would flip a pass to the wing. Somebody would have a wide-open 3-pointer, and they went in. A lot.

The Gamecocks allowed an average of 8.6 3-pointers in their 19 games against SEC competition and finished the season with a 35.6 percentage in 3-point defense, second-worst in the league. Eight teams hit 10 or more 3s against USC.

This year’s performance against the Gators restored the Gamecocks at the top of the country’s ranking of the best 3-point defenders at 26.3 percent. Only one opponent, Texas A&M, hit double-digit 3s against USC’s defense (11) but the Aggies still lost the game.

Florida had some looks. There were a few of those kick-outs to the wing that were so excruciating last year.

But nothing went.

“The few open looks that the No. 1-rated defensive efficiency team in the country gives you … ” began coach Mike White, “you’ve got to make one or two of ’em.”

The Gamecocks didn’t know about the streak. They just knew how they play defense, a unit that is becoming the most lethal outfit in the nation.

“It’s not defending the 3. It’s defending the ball,” Sindarius Thornwell explained. “It’s hard to shoot the 3-ball when someone’s right there on you. It’s hard to drive and kick when there’s a man guarding the ball.”

Fifth-ranked Kentucky, which hosts USC on Saturday, is led by Malik Monk, who averages 21 points per game and has canned 40 percent of his 3-point attempts. Point guard De’Aaron Fox is one of the quickest paint-penetrators in the game and loves to fire the ball to the waiting Monk on the wing. It’s a test.

“I’m going to be depressed here in about an hour when I turn on the Kentucky film,” Martin said. “But eventually I’m going to put my head on the pillow and know that I’ve got a group of fighters in that locker room that take unbelievable pride in wearing that uniform.”

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