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December 2, 2008GamecockCentral.com beat writer David Cloninger traveled to New Jersey to cover the USC-Princeton basketball game.
PRINCETON, N.J. -- That's more like it.
South Carolina rediscovered its defensive tenacity on Tuesday, forcing a season-high 26 turnovers in an 84-58 trashing of Princeton. Four days after a letdown in defense and rebounding helped lead to the Gamecocks' first loss of the season, USC recorded 18 steals -- another season-high -- and earned a split in its first two road games of the year.
"I don't think there's any team that likes to play defense," USC coach Darrin Horn joked. "You guys know a bunch of young people who like to play defense, I'd like to see them. I don't know any ... I wasn't one, I don't know any.
"I think what you can get is you can get teams bought into understanding how necessary it is for you to be good and I think we're trying to take steps for that to happen. We're not there yet, but tonight is a step in that direction."
The Gamecocks (5-1) balanced it with nine steals in each half, flying around the court and getting arms in the air to deflect Princeton passes. The Tigers (2-3), winless on their home court in three tries, had a short-lived lead in the first half but 15 unanswered points put USC back in front.
A re-commitment to D -- and four players in double figures, led by 22 points from Devan Downey -- put it quickly out of reach.
"I like it, and I'm continuing to understand it," Downey said of the team's defense. "I'm going to trust coach Horn and his system and it works. That's all I'm going to do; continue to let him coach and continue to try to be a leader and try to do whatever he tells us to do because he knows his system works."
Playing a similarly defensive-minded team, one that uses its pressure to set up a patient offense, the Gamecocks were caught napping early on that staple of Princeton basketball -- the backdoor cut. USC was concentrating on leading scorer Doug Davis, who only had seven points by the half, but Davis was penetrating, stopping on a dime and throwing a pass past the double coverage for a wide-open lay-up.
Jason Briggs fed Zach Finley with a bounce pass into the lane and Finley put it in for a 24-23 Tigers lead with 5:48 to go, Princeton's first advantage. The small crowd at Jadwin Gym began to rally, despite the sizable contingent of USC supporters, and the Gamecocks had only a slight second to realize what was at stake.
Fourteen seconds later, it didn't matter.
Evka Baniulis punched in a short jumper, part of a 6-for-7, 15-point performance, to reclaim the lead and USC rebounded Dan Mavraides' missed 3-pointer on the other end. Downey quickly took the ball, drove, stopped and faded back for a lofting two points, giving the Gamecocks a 27-24 lead.
From there, Princeton kept missing and USC kept converting, Zam Fredrick scoring five points and Dominique Archie adding four for the rest of the half. USC cruised into the locker room ahead 38-24 and didn't rest afterward, continuing the lockdown in the second half.
It only took a glare from Horn at the 10:00 mark of the second half, after USC had extended the lead to 22 but then allowed six straight Princeton points. The Gamecocks tightened up, began pouring on the points with a mix of fundamentals and highlight-reel tryouts and easily won.
It wasn't a perfect road swing, but far from the worst it could have been. A 1-1 record on the road with just one home game (Friday hosting Furman) remaining before the exam break is acceptable.
"We've worked so hard and coach Horn has done a good job preparing us," Downey said. "To get off to this good a start, we just got to keep continuing to bring it every day in practice. To start like this is real but we really want to finish it and just keep being strong, keep getting better throughout the year."
Downey finished with six assists and tied his career-high with seven steals. Baniulis, Fredrick (20) and Mike Holmes (13) joined him in double figures. Archie (eight points, eight rebounds) got loose for a habitual early dunk and a two-handed jam to end the first half and Branden Conrad, although he only scored two points and had three fouls, contributed two steals and four assists.
His last dish was an alley-oop to Holmes, who leaped from the block and rammed it home with both fists. The big man had gotten air-mailed on a couple of earlier attempts and finally got to throw one down.
"We were just running the floor hard," Holmes said. "Finally paid off."
Horn countered Princeton's offense by focusing on Davis and keeping the rest of the team guarding the baseline cuts. The Tigers got loose a couple of times but once the Gamecocks began flying to the ball on some of those rainbow passes, the lapses ceased.
"Just continuing to play hard," Horn said. "We told our guys, they're going to do what they do well, the same way we do. They may get a backdoor or two, but we just don't want them to be easy."
Downey took control early, driving to the basket for easy lay-ins and then getting his teammates involved. USC was content staying inside, only attempting a season-low 10 3-pointers (three connected).
Plus, USC could backdoor, too. Holding for the last possession before halftime, Downey waited until nine seconds showed on the shot clock, went in and saw Archie's man leave the post to help inside. Downey flipped the ball to the forward and watched him elevate.
Archie settled for a routine power dunk, nothing fancy, and the Gamecocks were in control. USC led by as much as 33 before Princeton made a few buckets at the end.
"I think it was really big," Horn said. "What's bigger is we challenged our guys on the defensive end and how important that was when you go on the road. And they responded really well."
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