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January 5, 2009It wasn't as crisp as he'd like, wasn't as sharp as he'd like.
But for his first South Carolina team after his first non-conference season, coach Darrin Horn is pleased.
Not bouncing off the walls giddy, but pleased.
"I'm never going to see that; coaches are never happy," he said after the Gamecocks whipped Wofford 78-61 on Monday to finish their non-conference schedule at 11-2. "But I think we've seen progress in the areas that we want to. I think we've seen a lot of bright spots. We've just got to continue to get better.
"The important thing is, I think, we have somewhat of a comfort level on how we're trying to do things, what we want to accomplish. Our goal is going to be the same as it has been -- to continue to get better every night out and find a way to win games."
USC won with the usual suspects, guard Devan Downey scoring a team-high 17 points and forward Mike Holmes posting his sixth consecutive double-figure game with 10. Brandis Raley-Ross burst for 14 points and steadily improving sophomore forward Austin Steed contributed 10.
The Gamecocks forced 16 turnovers and only committed six, blocking six shots and finding a crucial shot whenever the Terriers (4-6) began to creep back into the picture. The areas of concern were a dead-even heat in the rebounding tilt (29-all) and sluggish starts to each half.
Horn blamed it on a lack of energy, most of that from playing three games in seven days, including an emotional rivalry game against Clemson and a cross-country trip to Baylor. What was important was the Gamecocks, tired as they were, still found a way to win.
Next up -- the second half of the season. The Gamecocks begin SEC play on Saturday by hosting Auburn.
"What are we, 11-2?," wondered Raley-Ross after his third straight game since re-joining the starting five. "That's decent, heading into the conference season.
"But we still have a lot of stuff we obviously need to work on."
USC trailed 6-0 before Raley-Ross connected, which began an 18-4 Gamecock run. Wofford, playing without top scorer Junior Salters (out for the second straight game with a pulled gluteus muscle), stuck around but was buried with eight minutes to go.
After cutting the score to 22-20 on Corey Godzinski's 3-pointer, Wofford went on a five-minute scoreless drought while USC began finding its rhythm. Dominique Archie hit the back end of two free throws and Downey canned a 3, which got Zam Fredrick started.
Fredrick scored on consecutive jumpers to put the Gamecocks up 10, then watched Holmes clean up Downey's missed layup for a 32-20 lead. Holmes was hacked on the next possession and made two free throws, which got Fredrick loose again beyond the arc on the next possession.
The senior's shot thwipped through the nylon for his final points of the evening. Although he didn't score again, they were still memorable -- it brought his career total to 1,002.
"I guess it's a great accomplishment," said Fredrick, who began his journey with two years at Georgia Tech. "Now that I think about it, I feel more and more proud of it. I really didn't know much about it until coach told me right before we left."
The Gamecocks took a 15-point lead into the locker room but misfired early in the second half, letting Wofford get within eight points. Steed sank two free throws, Evka Baniulis made his second 3-pointer and Holmes and Steed combined for seven straight points to stifle that outburst.
The Terriers safely muzzled, USC turned its attention to the next game. There's five days before Auburn comes to Columbia, but the Gamecocks were already looking forward.
"You might think I'm crazy, but I was confident going in last year," Downey said. "I'm always confident. As a team, we're very confident."
The Gamecocks will need that confidence and whole lot more to erase some sour history. It's been 10 seasons since USC had a winning SEC record, five since USC won its SEC opener. Although the league has had its share of ups and downs this season -- only Tennessee is in the Top 25 -- it's nothing to take for granted.
USC is off to its best start since the 2003-04 season, which began 13-1 and ended in the NCAA tournament. Keeping it going in the second half of the season is the goal that just got pushed onto the front burner.
"Now everything we've done up to this point has been to get us ready for Saturday, which is, for us, what we've been working for," Horn said. "For us, it's always about league play."