Defense wins …
South Carolina doesn’t want to complete that sentence right now the usual way, so it will just use “games over Vanderbilt.”
The No. 22 Gamecocks stayed perfect and improved to 2-0 in the SEC for the first time since 2010 on Saturday with a 69-65 win over the Commodores, their defensive tenacity rising after a few early yips and Sindarius Thornwell shouldering the team in the final three minutes. Vanderbilt (8-7, 0-3), an excellent team despite its record, came into the game second in the SEC in field-goal percentage (47.7 percent) and 3-point shooting (41.1).
“(Assistant coach) Matt Figger grabbed me on Wednesday and said, ‘You’re going to have to open up your thick skull and let me talk and you’re going to have to listen to me,’” Frank Martin said. “And he convinced me to make some adjustments on our man-to-man on certain reads that we were getting off of film, based on when they try to back-cut us. And it’s not that we came up with a new defense, it’s something that we do, but I’m too stubborn to ever use it.”
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But Martin listened and trusted his longtime crony. Tweaks were installed, players were instructed.
The Gamecocks gave up two 3-pointers to 7-foot-1 Luke Kornet and were trailing 8-0 in the first two minutes.
Still, he stuck with it.
“They came at us,” Martin said. “You got to have the courage to wait for those things to leave, re-gather yourselves and then come back and attack. And that’s what our guys did.”
After Kornet’s 3s, the Commodores made three more (out of 22 attempts) for the duration (20.8 percent). Vandy’s worst shooting performance of the year was still over 40 percent; the Gamecocks held them to 32.8. Damian Jones, the best center in the league, had 12 points but fouled out in 16 minutes, and Kornet only had two points after his initial burst.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks (15-0) kept plugging, took the lead for good with 11 minutes to go and were just good enough from the stripe to finish.
“We have so much confidence in what we do and that’s all we got to do – just run the plays,” said P.J. Dozier, who hit the go-ahead bucket and then swished another for a four-point lead.
A season-high 15,055 was on hand to watch and never let USC down, even when the free throws weren’t going. The Gamecocks hit 18-of-30, too many chances being given to Vanderbilt to get right back in the game with a 3-pointer.
But the Commodores couldn’t convert, and it was time for the Gamecocks’ best player to take over. Thornwell scored seven straight to give USC a two-possession lead, and Michael Carrera and Marcus Stroman were each 1-of-2 from the line to clinch it.
USC was left with a winning streak just two games shy of the best run in program history and sharing first place in the SEC with Texas A&M. True to the last 14, the Gamecocks pooh-poohed it.
Not celebrating the hot start or looking ahead got them here. No way they change now.
“It was just a win,” Thornwell said. “They all can go away after a loss.”
NOTES: USC had a pregame moment of silence for Bill Foster. Foster, USC’s coach from 1980-86, died last week at age 86. … Thornwell scored his 1,000th career point.
Star of the game: Thornwell carried the team late, somehow flying through the lane with arms going eight ways at once to kiss a shot off the glass and scoring 19 points. His seven straight in the final three minutes turned a two-point lead into six.
Play of the game: Dozier rose into the lane, pump-faked and softly threw a shot through the rim for a 51-49 lead with 10:55 to play. The Gamecocks had been within a point five times and had never gotten over the hump; after Dozier’s basket, they never trailed again.
Stat of the game: The Commodores, the second-best 3-point shooting team in the SEC, started 2-of-2 from long range. They hit three of their next 22.
FROM THE BASELINE
Stro: Dozier took over late but Marcus Stroman again played extensive minutes when Dozier had two first-half fouls. The sophomore, who Martin loves for his toughness, was unafraid to drive against Vanderbilt’s massive paint presence and ran the offense well. He even had a block.
RPI hunting: Vanderbilt is a great team. Yes, it’s struggling right now, because Kornet missed a month and they’ve had other injuries. But Kevin Stallings’ teams always get better at the end (they lost seven straight in January last year but still won 21 games) and come March, USC is going to have quite an RPI-strengthening victory.
Who: South Carolina at Alabama
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Coleman Coliseum, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
TV: SEC Network
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Kornet 2-9 2-2 8, Roberson 1-7 5-7 7, Jones 5-6 2-3 12, Fisher-Davis 0-1 0-0 0, LaChance 6-16 0-0 15, Justice 0-1 0-0 0, Toye 1-2 3-4 5, Baldwin IV 3-13 7-11 13, Josephs 0-0 0-0 0, Cressler 1-3 0-0 2, Henderson 1-3 1-2 3. Totals 20-61 20-29 65.
SOUTH CAROLINA (15-0)
Chatkevicius 4-7 1-2 9, Carrera 1-5 2-4 4, Kacinas 5-10 3-6 13, Thornwell 6-14 7-9 19, Dozier 4-9 1-2 9, Stroman 2-5 2-4 7, Notice 2-7 2-2 8, McKie 0-0 0-0 0, Cobb 0-0 0-0 0, Silva 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-57 18-29 69.
Halftime_Vanderbilt 38-35. 3-Point Goals_Vanderbilt 5-24 (LaChance 3-7, Kornet 2-9, Fisher-Davis 0-1, Justice 0-1, Cressler 0-2, Roberson 0-2, Baldwin IV 0-2), South Carolina 3-13 (Notice 2-4, Stroman 1-1, Chatkevicius 0-1, Carrera 0-2, Kacinas 0-2, Thornwell 0-3). Fouled Out_Baldwin IV, Carrera, Cressler, Jones. Rebounds_Vanderbilt 36 (Jones, Roberson 6), South Carolina 44 (Carrera, Thornwell 8). Assists_Vanderbilt 10 (Baldwin IV 4), South Carolina 11 (Notice 4). Total Fouls_Vanderbilt 25, South Carolina 23. Attendance_15,055.