South Carolina’s little connection to these NBA Finals happened 10 years ago when 7,251 fans came to see the Gamecocks host a first round NIT game at Colonial Life Arena. Monday’s crowd at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto is expected to be much larger as the Larry O’Brien could be handed to the Raptors for the first time in franchise history.
The stakes in Canada are higher than they were in Columbia on March 17, 2009, but there’s a common main attraction. Now, Stephen Curry is the two-time MVP trying to will the injury-ridden Golden State Warriors back from a 3-1 series deficit and capture a fourth title in five years. Then, Curry was college basketball’s darling, a skinny scoring machine with great bloodlines and an NCAA tournament run for the ages. But after making the Elite Eight in 2008, Curry and Davidson failed to make the Big Dance a year later. The Wildcats (26-7) were NIT-bound, matched up with a 21-win team from the SEC.
What transpired was Curry’s final college victory. The junior scored 32 points as Davidson pulled away from USC, 70-63, and advanced to the NIT’s second round, where it lost at St. Mary’s. Curry declared for the NBA draft a month later.
The rest — seven all-star selections, a scoring title, a case for best shooter of all-time, a famous daughter, a famous mouthguard — is easily found on the internet. What’s not quickly discovered by Google are details around Curry’s first and only trip to CLA.
The State found some USC characters from that night to help relive the moment.
South Carolina, under first-year coach Darrin Horn, entered the NIT as a No. 3 seed despite a 21-9 record and co-SEC East Division title. The Gamecocks stumbled down the stretch, losing three of their last four games, hurting their NCAA tournament chances.
Trey Brown, USC student manager: That last couple weeks of the season kind of went by really quick because we were having a great year. Beat Kentucky twice and had some good wins. Unfortunately, we went and lost to Vanderbilt and Tennessee and Mississippi State. And then going down to the SEC tournament and losing to Mississippi State. It was a whirlwind because you spent the last eight or nine weeks thinking this is gonna happen, you’re gonna make the NCAA tournament.
Scott Cherry, USC assistant coach: We shared the regular season championship in the SEC East Division with Tennessee. We had a really good team that year. And we felt like we had put ourselves in a position to play in the NCAA tournament. Early exit in the SEC tournament just kind of dampened the mood.
Branden Conrad, USC senior guard: I remember we met at Coach Horn’s house to watch the selection show. We had dinner and were awaiting the NCAAs and found out we weren’t getting in. It was very heartbreaking. We had a very good year. We left there and really didn’t know at that point who we were going to play in the NIT.
After his breakout March as a sophomore, Curry returned to Davidson and continued to dazzle. He dropped 44 points on Oklahoma in November and another 44 on N.C. State in December. The Wildcats won their league by three games, but lost in the semifinals of the Southern Conference tournament and didn’t have the résumé of an NCAA tournament team. They were a No. 6 seed in the NIT, coming to CLA, where the Gamecocks had won 16 of 18 games.
Zam Fredrick, USC senior guard: My cousin called me first. And what he said to me was, ‘You know what time it is.’ We knew the whole Davidson thing. We had seen him do it the season before in the NCAA tournament, but I wanted to see it for myself, if he was that guy. Just like everyone else did. So the build-up was he was coming from Charlotte. We were saying, ‘We’re not going to let him come in our house and do what what he does.’
Brown: It was a little different. Everyone knew Stephen Curry, saw him in the NCAA tournament and you knew he was a phenomenal player. But it wasn’t like it was today where you have ESPNU and ESPN3 and all these games were on TV. So it was a little bit different. There wasn’t as much out on TV, so you’re not aware of them as much.
Conrad: I was very familiar with Davidson. I was very familiar with Steph at that point because we both grew up in Charlotte. We were at rival high schools a mile apart from each other. Unfortunately on my end, Steph ended my high school and college career. He played at Charlotte Christian and I played at Providence Day. So I was very familiar with him, I was excited about the opportunity to play Davidson.
Cherry: The team was really good. It wasn’t just Steph Curry, it was a team of guys that were very talented in a one-bid league. So we knew it was going to be a big-time challenge for us on top of the fact we had to figure out a way to get our guys motivated to play when they didn’t ultimately reach the prize of what they were hoping for.
Curry (28.6 points per game) was the nation’s leading scorer, but South Carolina that season had already faced a similar producer in Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks (23.7). It dealt with Tennessee sharp-shooter Chris Lofton the previous four seasons. With the game on Tuesday, the Gamecocks had one day to prepare for Curry.
Cherry: We faced guys like that in the SEC and some of the non-conference opponents that we played. I don’t know that we looked at him other than, ‘Hey, he’s just another really, really good player that we got to make sure that he doesn’t beat us.’
Conrad: The game preparation for Davidson was with him as the focal point.
Frederick: I wanted the matchup, personally, I’ll be honest with you. But the coaches didn’t want to make it a 1-on-1 thing. They wanted to run different defenders to wear him down.
Brown: We just kind of wanted to run a bunch of kids at him, try to wear down throughout the course of the game so that when he got to the last six or seven minutes, maybe we could overbear him by the end of the game. That was the game-plan, try multiple guys and try to use our size and strength as an advantage.
Curry opened the game with knocking down a 25-footer. He scored 12 of Davidson’s first 23 points. SEC steals leader Devan Downey got first crack at Curry, followed by Frederick, Evaldas Baniulis and Conrad, among others. The Wildcats led 28-26 at halftime.
Conrad: There was energy inside the building. And it was a close game throughout. Probably a 3-to-5 point game almost the whole way. Watching Devan Downey and Steph Curry, two of the best point guards in the country, play. I mean, that was probably one of the best point guard matchups in the country that year.
Cherry: A guy like Devan is fast and low to the ground and can cause him problems, but Steph’s coming off screens and catching and shooting, he can elevate over a guy like him. I’m sure we were trying to rotate multiple guys on him, specifically guys with length, and I know if he came off ball screens, I’m sure we were trying to double him and get the ball out of his hands, force somebody else to beat us.
Fredrick: For a four-minute stretch, I guarded him. And I’ll be honest with you — you can watch the film if you want — he never scored a basket on me. I took it personal because I knew everybody was watching. But then there was a TV timeout. And that’s when the coach told me, ‘Zam, don’t make it personal, it’s not a 1-on-1 thing.’ But as a competitor, you gotta have a feel of the moment, especially with a guy of that caliber. So after he told me that, I didn’t see too much of him.
Tied at 51 with 9:15 left, Curry scored 13 of Davidson’s next 17 as the Wildcats took command. His two free throws at the 1:58 mark served as the game’s final points. He finished 9 of 19 from the floor (5 of 10 from 3) and 9 of 10 from the line. Downey led USC with 18 points.
Fredrick: He didn’t talk at all on the court. He guarded me a few times and he’d put his chest on you and he’d try to body you around even though he was small. But he stayed quiet, didn’t talk.
Conrad: I remember he was always under control and he had a great step-back without pushing off. At the college level, you get a lot of guys who will extend their forearm to create space and Steph just did a great job of creating space without creating any contact.
Brown: He came down in transition one time and came off a ball screen. We went underneath and he just pulled one from NBA range. I don’t think it touched the net hardly. I was like, ‘Oof, this guy is the real deal.’
Cherry: We didn’t feel like we did a bad job on him. We were just disappointed we lost the game.
Fredrick: We played a good game, but Steph being Steph, he pushed his team over the top, 25-30 points. With people on him. Side-steps, he was able to take shots that we couldn’t take at that time. He was THAT GUY.
Darrin Horn, USC coach*: Curry showed why he’s going to be a first-round pick, probably this year, if he wants to. He made a lot of big plays.
*As reported in the March 18, 2009, edition of The State newspaper