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December 5, 2011

Cloninger: Good win, better week off



"Why not smile?"
-------------- R.E.M.

"There are a lot of positives we can take from this game," coach Darrin Horn said, and man, was he right. The most important of which being, South Carolina won a basketball game.

The Gamecocks won their last game before the exam break 58-55 over Clemson on Sunday, a win as huge in its presence in the overall record as it was for the time of year. USC heads into a week off feeling happy, not from its 3-5 record but from knowing that it won a game, a rivalry game, that it probably shouldn't have won.

So for the next week, or until the next game, there's no finger-pointing, no gnashing of teeth, no howls from the fan base, no obsessive viewing of the game film wondering which play could have been the difference. The game was far from pretty, but the final score was starlet-esque in its beauty.

Everybody can be happy for a week and realize that maybe, just maybe, the Gamecocks can improve and really erase a miserable start. One win doesn't completely absolve losses to Elon and Tennessee State, but there's nothing Gamecocks like more than beating the Tigers.

Obviously, the road to get better will be long and full of potholes, but USC can build on the Clemson win. Horn drastically changed his offensive approach to beat the Tigers and while it wasn't fluid, perhaps it can be.

Two-guard Damien Leonard was taken out of the starting lineup for the first time all season. It was necessary, since Leonard has struggled to shoot consistently, which is the biggest punch he can provide. Horn went tall with the lineup, and started using the height - the first play was to immediately throw inside to Damontre Harris, and see if he could get to work.

Good move, on two parts. One, it told Clemson's defense that it couldn't just guard the perimeter and force long and awkward jumpers. Two, it really got a project in motion that the coaches have been planning for a year and a half - Harris is a prospect because he wasn't really coached in high school. The Gamecocks feel he can be, and perhaps Sunday showed why.

Got to give the big man the ball and let him learn what to do with it. Harris scored 10 on Sunday to complement his six rebounds and five blocks.

The Gamecocks will have to start working the ball inside more and quit depending on the 3, which is what they did against Clemson. Five-of-15 from the line isn't great, but it was enough, especially when Anthony Gill swished a 3 to put the Gamecocks up three points in the waning minutes.

Gill started playing more aggressively, which he needed to do, and Bruce Ellington continues to get better. His shot isn't back yet, but he's driving the lane just like he used to do, and his kick-out pass to the improving Eric Smith for a jumper was also a crucial moment.

They're all things to concentrate on and improve on over the next week. Obviously, this team will get dealt some heavy doses of reality, as in just not having the kind of talent to beat some of the teams on the schedule (the Ohio State and Kentucky games in particular could get really ugly really fast). But after a win, a rivalry win on the road, maybe some belief begins to seep back into the team.

"We made a lot of good plays in the last 10 minutes alone," Horn said. "I'm really proud of these guys' effort tonight and the way that we fought."

Now to keep fighting through the rest of the year.

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