South Carolina 66, Presbyterian 58
COLUMBIA -- Four minutes into the second half Tuesday night, South Carolina once again found itself threatened by a smaller conference opponent. Presbyterian had led all game to that point as it tried to replicate Elon's and Tennessee State's wins last month over the Gamecocks.
Then USC point guard Bruce Ellington swiped the ball from Khalid Mutakabbir in the Gamecocks' full-court pressure defense, dashed toward the hoop, made a layup, drew a foul and hit his free throw, putting USC up by one point for its first lead of the night.
That sequence was the third, fourth and fifth points of a 14-0 run -- keyed by the press -- that boosted the Gamecocks to a 66-58 win that has them feeling hopeful heading into Saturday's home game against second-ranked Ohio State.
"I don't think there was any question that the difference in tonight's game was our defense and our pressure," said USC coach Darrin Horn. "Even when we didn't turn them over, I thought it kind of changed the rhythm of the game a little bit."
It also helped the Gamecocks (4-5) convert the easy scoring opportunities they botched too often in the first half. They shot 7 of 29 (24.1 percent) in the half and trailed 25-19 at halftime. In the second half, they shot 19 of 27
(70.4 percent) and outscored the Blue Hose, 47-33.
Horn was annoyed about his team missing too many layups in the first half and again putting itself in a hole. He said he told his players at halftime: "It's Division I basketball. Make a layup."
USC has led at halftime just twice all season and won both games, over Western Carolina and Mississippi Valley State. The Gamecocks trailed by seven at halftime in each of their previous two games, against Providence and Clemson. They lost to Providence and beat Clemson, which preceded an eight-day break for final exams.
During that time, the Gamecocks worked extensively on their full-court press, said senior forward Malik Cooke. The results showed during the decisive run that put USC up 40-30 with 13:56 left in the game.
"We just felt the whole mood change," Cooke said of the press. "And it felt good."
USC led by at least eight for the final 9:19 -- a rare feat this season for a team that had to surge back to beat Mississippi Valley State and Clemson.
The Gamecocks were wary of Presbyterian's ability to come back on the road. Yes, the Blue Hose play in the Big South Conference, a league that traditionally gets one NCAA tournament bid and is almost always a No. 15 or 16 seed. But these Blue Hose won 56-54 last month at then-No. 20 Cincinnati after trailing by 15 points with 10:11 left in the game.
Ellington made sure that wouldn't happen Tuesday. He shot 3 of 7 in both halves and led the Gamecocks with 15 points.
3-Point -- PC 7-18 (Mutakabbir 3-4, Johnson 3-7, Miller 1-4, Hargrave 0-1, Washington 0-2); USC 5-11 (Leonard 2-2, Cooke 1-1, Gill 1-1, Ellington 1-3, Smith 0-1, Richardson 0-1, Williams 0-2). Steals -- PC 3 (Coleman, Mutakabbir, Johnson); USC 7 (Cooke 2, Jackson 2, Richardson 2). Blks -- PC 2 (McTavish, Johnson); USC 7 (Harris 5). Turnovers -- PC 18 (Washington 6); USC 13 (Gill 5). Tech -- None.
In his third game back after missing the first six while playing football, the former Berkeley High standout appeared closer to his form of last season, when he led the Gamecocks in scoring. His performance rendered reserve guard Brenton Williams' return a footnote. Williams went scoreless in five minutes, all in the first half. Horn thought he looked rusty, which is understandable. He missed the previous five games because of a sprained his left knee. Still, his return and Ellington's progress are positive signs for USC's backcourt.
"I think Bruce looks a little more comfortable every time out," Horn said.