David Cloninger

Cloninger: What a day

Dawn Staley played the no-respect card and her team responded with a dominant performance.
Dawn Staley played the no-respect card and her team responded with a dominant performance. AP

So … greatest afternoon in South Carolina basketball history?

It may be a Top-10 greatest afternoon in South Carolina overall athletic history, beating 10 previously held spots by whatever days the Gamecocks won and Clemson lost.

I figured USC’s women would win, although it’d be tough. Kentucky was playing well, the Gamecocks didn’t play that well on Friday and that’s the kind of team that gives the Gamecocks fits. Instead, USC belted the Wildcats in the whiskers from tipoff and let it be known that they were nowhere close to abdicating their throne atop the SEC.

And the men, my, the men. Slumping badly and playing themselves right out of the NCAA tournament. Going to the hardest place to win in the SEC, off a loss and short rest. Facing a team that loves to shoot the 3 and knowing their defense gives up 3s like most folks eat popcorn. And then losing their best scorer, best rebounder, most indispensible player and heart and soul to a hip injury before tipoff.

And they, as Ray Tanner coined, won anyway.

The Machine

The Gamecocks say they got their hackles raised by some pre-game comments from the SEC Network that Kentucky was coming. Hey, if Dawn Staley used that and the players believed it, it sure worked. It wasn’t just the ferocity USC played with, it was unveiling new wrinkles to its game that hadn’t been seen in 30 previous games.

Where’d all this outside shooting, midrange to 3s, come from? When did Asia Dozier become the best disher on the planet? How did Bianca Cuevas, so good at times and so bad at others, shelve two years of so-so play to be the McDonald’s All-American she was in high school?

They said they felt disrespected and certainly played like it. The emotion they had of playing rival Kentucky didn’t take away anything from their fundamentals – if anything, it fine-tuned them.

The Gamecocks did pretty much anything they wanted to do, and every time Kentucky made a run, USC icily hit another long-range shot or forced a turnover. That’s the kind of dominant, mean and nasty game the Gamecocks will need every game for the duration.

The way they played Saturday, after Sunday’s tournament championship game, I’m making plans for six more games.

USC took a big step toward solidifying the No. 1 seed in the Lexington Regional as well, although I don’t think it’s definite just yet. The Gamecocks have now beaten 12 Top 25 opponents and gone 16-0 (or 18-0) in the SEC. That’s really, really good but if they want to make it a sure thing, they have to beat Mississippi State Sunday.

Notre Dame gets Syracuse in the ACC tournament final and should win, meaning the Irish will also finish undefeated in the league with one overall loss (like USC, to UConn). The Gamecocks are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA’s eyes and that wouldn’t change with a win on Sunday, whereas it may if they lose and Notre Dame wins.

Fighters

Frank Martin likes to talk boxing. He brings it up a lot in his press conferences. So it really shouldn’t be that surprising that USC fit a boxing analogy on Saturday – backed into the corner, the Gamecocks had two choices: Cover up and hope for a not-too-severe beating, or come out swinging.

Not much doubt which one they chose.

Sindarius Thornwell shouldered the team and led them to an early lead while the Gamecocks kept Arkansas at bay and themselves comfortably ahead. The Razorbacks made their run, leaving me to look up the particulars of that Arkansas game last year, but USC stiff-armed them and got the win they needed.

Jerry Palm had them welcomed to the bubble beforehand. Now they’re off it and safely back in the field of 68. They’re going to Nashville, where they’ve had a lot of success the past two years, and they can watch the other guys beat themselves up for a game or two before they even have to play.

USC is no-doubt in the NCAA tournament but why stop here? The Gamecocks have made a habit of playing their best at the end of Martin’s seasons, and if they can just repeat the success they’ve had in the SEC tournament the past two years, they’d be in the championship game with a program-high in wins.

Michael Carrera’s injury is concerning, because he’s been such a huge part of this run and you want that guy to be able to play in something he’s earned. That’s another thing that was clinched by the win – USC gets an extra day to treat the hip, and although the deadline-killer late game isn’t grand, that’s a few more hours where Carrera can use whatever kind of mystical Native American cure/low-grade horse tranquilizer to work on what’s hurting him.

There will be plenty of talk about that this week. For now, it’s about realizing what a surprise this team has been – they’ve lost some games that were very head-scratching, but they were trumped by the games they won. Like the game last year in Athens, USC reversed a situation where all seemed lost. That season ended with the best performances of the years.

It’s a great time of year to be at their best.

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