It was happening again.
So they won – again.
South Carolina remained undefeated with its first SEC-opening win in five years on Tuesday, 81-69 against Auburn. Just like its road win against Clemson four games ago, the No. 22 Gamecocks saw a massive lead evaporate from a blur of opposing 3-pointers. Just like then, they knew what to do – turn to the guys who got them here.
Laimonas Chatkevicius, who had been missing in action since posting three consecutive 17-point games in November, scored four straight points after a 15-point lead was sliced to five. Mindaugas Kacinas, Michael Carrera and Sindarius Thornwell combined with Chatkevicius to score 13 consecutive points.
The veterans, who had been through so much with few victories to show for it, were the ones Frank Martin leaned on. They came through, refusing to repeat last year, when a strong non-conference start fizzled into an SEC-opening loss to start a sour stretch.
The lead was rebuilt and free throws took the Gamecocks home. Chatkevicius had his first double-double of the season and was joined by Carrera, Thornwell, Marcus Stroman and Duane Notice in double figures. USC (14-0, 1-0 SEC) beat Auburn for the second time in eight games and Bruce Pearl for the third time in 16 tries.
Most important, they won a conference game on the road. Now, the undefeated start looks a lot nicer.
Because, while the Gamecocks have 17 games to go, now they’ve won on the SEC stage.
“We ain’t worried about March,” Martin said. “But if we want to play there, we’ve got to win more than we lose in conference play.”
A season-high 21 Auburn turnovers helped USC leap to an 18-point first-half lead, and while the Tigers (7-6, 1-1) began to connect on 3-pointers in the second half, the Gamecocks kept finding answers. Thornwell would hit a 3, Kacinas and Stroman kept USC the SEC’s best team at getting to the line and the lead hovered around 10 points.
But Auburn’s Tyler Harris began to work Chatkevicius in the post, scoring six consecutive points, and Bryce Brown’s 3-pointer made it 59-54 Gamecocks with just under 11 minutes to play. Martin called timeout and, while stressing fundamentals as the Auburn Arena crowd was at its loudest, he told his upperclassmen the game was theirs.
“Today, I was riding with them,” Martin said. “That’s the kind of trust you build when you’ve been through this together in so many games the past three years.”
Chatkevicius had back-to-back baskets and Carrera swiped a rebound from a Tiger and laid the ball in. USC led by 12 and tiring Auburn didn’t have as much steam on its long-range attempts.
USC ended 50 percent from the field with more rebounds, more assists and more points in the paint. The Gamecocks also had one more victory – and one in the only season that matters.
“Like last year, we’d never build a 15-point lead. We’d build an eight-point lead, and we’d get to that five-minute mark and we’d doubt we could win,” Martin said. “Today, and the previous 10 or 14 games or so, when teams have made a push at us, our guys have settled down.”
Martin’s timeout after Brown’s 3 turned Chatkevicius’ light on. He scored his two baskets immediately after.
Star of the game: Chatkevicius has always been a streaky player, but after being the most dominant big man in the country early and becoming a dormouse over the past seven games, there were doubts about his return.
“I tried to do my best to help my team, and I was there today,” he said. “I’m just trying to figure out and come back to be the same guy and play the same way in conference.”
Play of the game: Carrera’s swiped recovered rebound and lay-up made it a 12-point game – although he might have gotten away with a foul.
Stat of the game: Auburn had a season-high 21 turnovers. While the Tigers calmed down in the second half, the 23 first-half points they spotted USC off those turnovers kept them just far enough away.
FROM THE BASELINE
The Answer: When the games have gotten tight, the Gamecocks have looked like five Iversons on the floor. They don’t panic, and they deliver a big shot or rebound. It’s the sign of a veteran team.
Stro: Sitting P.J. Dozier for Marcus Stroman, what? Yet the sophomore tough man came through with 10 points, going 8-for-8 from the line.
Now it’s real: There were still detractors despite the start, and no one can blame them. USC has been here before and USC hasn’t held the momentum. The SEC has treated the Gamecocks like a garnet-headed stepchild.
USC won, on the road, against a coach and a team that has had its number. Yes, there are 17 games left – but the Gamecocks won in a situation where they had lost many, many times. Now, people can get excited.
Who: Vanderbilt at South Carolina
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState
SOUTH CAROLINA (14-0)
Chatkevicius 5-9 2-3 12, Carrera 4-9 3-5 12, Kacinas 2-4 3-4 7, Thornwell 6-10 5-6 22, Dozier 2-5 0-0 4, Stroman 1-1 8-8 10, Notice 4-10 1-2 12, Silva 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 25-50 22-28 81.
Spencer 2-3 0-0 4, Harris 10-13 1-3 22, Granger 2-5 2-2 8, Canty 6-15 4-6 21, Brown 3-10 2-2 11, Bowers 1-7 0-0 3, Keim 0-0 0-0 0, Lang 0-1 0-0 0, Waddell 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-54 9-13 69.
Halftime_South Carolina 43-30. 3-Point Goals_South Carolina 9-23 (Thornwell 5-8, Notice 3-6, Carrera 1-4, Kacinas 0-1, Chatkevicius 0-2, Dozier 0-2), Auburn 12-30 (Canty 5-12, Brown 3-9, Granger 2-5, Harris 1-1, Bowers 1-2, Lang 0-1). Fouled Out_Brown. Rebounds_South Carolina 34 (Chatkevicius 10), Auburn 27 (Harris 6). Assists_South Carolina 15 (Thornwell 7), Auburn 12 (Canty 5). Total Fouls_South Carolina 13, Auburn 19. Attendance_7,556.