David Cloninger

Gamecocks set up for strong finish

You hear P.J. Dozier, the starting point guard, who’s a 6-foot-6 guy who can defend really well at the perimeter, is out before tipoff and you know it’s not going to be your night.

Especially after the worst practice of the season Friday, as USC coach Frank Martin called it, and the flu sweeping through the locker room.

Yet South Carolina didn’t give up, although it was like attacking a castle with a slingshot. The Gamecocks did what they could, leaning on Sindarius Thornwell and hoping it would be enough.

For 30 minutes, it nearly was, and then reality set in. It wasn’t as grim a defeat at the hands of Kentucky as the 85-69 final score indicated.

USC is a darned good basketball team. It’s already waded through so many potholes that could have derailed this season and stands in second place in the SEC with 12 games to go. At full strength, and with the toughest games behind it (outside of a game at Florida in late February), this is a team made for the postseason.

For what it’s worth, the Gamecocks know that. They remember how too many “bad” losses at the end of last season cost them a tournament berth they still should have had. And they know that despite Saturday’s loss, this season is still very much in play to get what they didn’t get last year.

“We’ll get on the plane, go home today and the leadership of our team, those three guys are phenomenal,” Martin said. “They’ll come in and get guys ready to go tomorrow.”

USC can take care of its humbled mindset in practice and get ready for what’s coming. The next three games, and really the next 12, are crucial. Auburn’s an athletic team and comes to Columbia, which you’d think would be able to be handled, and then Missouri and LSU are on the road.

The latter two are the worst two teams in the league. The Gamecocks can’t afford to drop those. The SEC’s reputation is suffering harder than normal, with the league set to have one top-25 team in the new polls.

USC got what it needed this week with a win over Florida, and it won’t be knocked for losing at Rupp. It set itself up for a great scenario.

The finish line beckons. They didn’t reach it without stumbling last year.

This year, they’ve already stumbled and are still just behind the leader of the pack.

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