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November 23, 2010

MBB: Defensive Energy Guides USC

On Monday, Darrin Horn said he wanted 40 minutes of defensive intensity and energy.

On Tuesday, he got them, despite having about 12 on the offensive side.

He wasn't overjoyed, but it was enough.

The Gamecocks overcame a sloppy 30 minutes of offense with a complete game of defense to beat USC Upstate 57-41. USC didn't dominate the Spartans (0-6), a team that was nearly as cold from the field as the Gamecocks, but rose above it with constant enthusiasm on the other side of the floor.

"I also think that our team took a step tonight," Horn said. "We won a game that was ugly when we were very poor offensively, but we got the defensive effort we were looking for for 40 minutes. And I think the numbers showed that."

Upstate was held to 25.9 percent shooting, including 3-of-22 from the 3-point line, and USC out-rebounded the Spartans 55-34. The Gamecocks waited and waited for a break, and finally received one with just under 14 minutes to play.

One big shot became a small opening, and allowed the Gamecocks to do what they do well. Ramon Galloway sunk a 3-pointer for a six-point lead, USC signaled for the press and it was bye-bye ballgame.

"If there was an open man, I would have passed it," said Galloway, who finished with a game-high 12 points. "I had a good shot and I hit it."

The Gamecocks forced a turnover when Upstate couldn't get past the timeline, then Lakeem Jackson went inside and got fouled. The three-point play became an Upstate pass to Babatunde Olumuyiwa but Johndre Jefferson was there to block it, sending it to Galloway on the break.

He went coast-to-coast, the Gamecocks got another turnover, then Jackson finally scored on the fifth try of one possession. USC only had nine points during the burst, but Upstate had zero and was still searching for a bucket seven minutes later.

The Spartans were scoreless until Olumuyiwa rammed a one-handed dunk through with 6:18 to play. The Gamecocks were only ahead 45-30 but the pressure had done its job. Upstate, thrown out of kilter, scored 10 points over 11 minutes.

There were still plenty of problems -- USC had 17 turnovers and the Spartans blocked 11 shots, led by an incredible nine from Olumuyiwa -- but they are much easier to work on after a win. Perhaps it won't be as joyous a Thanksgiving as first thought, but the Gamecocks did finish a two-game homestand with a 2-0 record.

"More than anything, it was trying to get our energy level up," Horn said. "I thought Lakeem Jackson really started it with his defense on the ball in the press, and we had a bunch of guys fly around and make some plays. Seems like we do that, especially in our pressure, it helps our team. And it obviously created a few easy baskets and changed the flow of the game for us."

USC was expected to struggle offensively this season, especially early when still finding out what each of the new players could do. But some of its supposedly dependable players -- Sam Muldrow and Malik Cooke -- haven't had consistent performances and some of the surprises (notably sophomore Stephen Spinella) have suffered through the same drought.

Spinella, after setting career-highs in points in each of his past two games, was scoreless and had his only shot stuffed. Muldrow finished with two points and five boards, while Cooke had eight points and nine rebounds but also had a wide-open shot rejected by Olumuyiwa when he got the ball in the paint, paused and allowed the big man to set up.

It's a learning process for the team, which has concentrated on getting the defense down first and then focusing on offense. The half-court sets are virtually non-existent but stingy defense forces speedy transition, which is what the entire roster was recruited to do.

"I don't think it's the youth," Galloway said. "I just think we need to lock in and get more focused on half-court offense. When we get back to focusing on offense and executing, it will come."

"We've just been working on defense so much that we kind of steered away from offense, and it looked a little shaky today," said Jackson, who scored 11. "We're going to come back tomorrow and work on it, so it will be fine."

USC will tip off at Western Kentucky 7 p.m. on Saturday.

NOTE: Freshman forward Damontre Harris had a Band-Aid over his left eye. Horn said Harris got knocked in the head during practice and received a few stitches.

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