COLUMBIA — It was a freshman who made the difference in Wednesday night’s battle for first place in the SEC. Just not the freshman everyone expected.
P.J. Dozier scored 10 of his 12 points in a pivotal second-half stretch that broke open a tie game, and South Carolina hung on for a 94-83 victory over LSU at Colonial Life Arena that elevated the Gamecocks to first place in the SEC.
“I know, personally, I can put the ball in the basket,” said Dozier, who scored in double-figures for the first time in nearly a month. “We have so many offensive scoring threats. So when it comes down to late-game situations like that, we have the utmost confidence in any one of us to take the shots. I was just the lucky one.”
Sindarius Thornwell scored 24 to lead the Gamecocks (21-3, 8-3 SEC) who now occupy first place along with No. 20 Kentucky, which visits USC at noon Saturday. Ben Simmons, the LSU freshman who is the league’s third-leading scorer and likely to be the top pick in the NBA draft, had five at halftime and finished with 20.
It was an encounter between the two freshmen which started USC’s crucial run. Simmons shook off early foul trouble which forced him to sit the final 8:20 of the first half, returning to score LSU’s first seven points in the second. With 9:05 left and the score tied at 60, Dozier took a slight jab-step at the left elbow and lifted a jumper over Simmons — who fouled him in the process.
The ball fell in, Dozier converted the free throw, and suddenly the USC freshman took over. He dropped in a transition layup off a Simmons turnover. He knocked down a jumper. He fed teammate Raymond Doby for a pair of free throws, and then converted a three-point play.
In a span of three minutes and 35 seconds, Dozier scored 10 of USC’s 17 points, assisted on four more, and led the Gamecocks from tied to up nine.
“That wasn’t by mistake the ball ended up in his hands three, four, five possessions coming down the stretch there. That was set up for him. And give him credit, he converted,” said USC head coach Frank Martin.
“I trust him. Obviously, a game of this magnitude, of this level, I’m putting the ball in his hands and saying, ‘All right, we’re going to run this stuff, and it’s going to come back to you — go.’ And he did.”
Simmons, who faced Dozier last year in the McDonald’s All-American Game, offered grudging praise. “He hit some big shots late, but he’s a good player,” he said.
With Simmons in foul trouble, LSU (15-9, 8-3) stayed in it thanks to uncharacteristically strong 3-point shooting. The Tigers entered the game tied with USC for 13th in the SEC in 3-pointers made per game, hitting an average of 5.6 per contest. Wednesday they sank nine, including six in the first half.
But Antonio Blakeney’s trey with 5:19 remaining was LSU’s last of the night. The Tigers tried to go inside to Simmons with the game on the line, and managed only one field goal in the final two minutes — a Simmons layup with seven seconds left.
“We did not do the things that were necessary to put ourselves in position to win the basketball game,” said LSU head coach Johnny Jones. “... On the offensive end, I don’t think we managed it well enough.”
Meanwhile, the games just get bigger for South Carolina, which has now beaten two first-place teams in as many outings, and has another coming up Saturday. Except that this time, the Gamecocks will be level with Kentucky atop the standings, and continuing this once-unlikely quest for a first conference title since 1997.
“That’s always been a goal here, to win the conference, make the (NCAA) tournament, and hopefully one day have a chance to win the tournament,” Thornwell said. “It’s always a goal to win the championship. That’s definitely what we play for.”