COLUMBIA — A top-50 RPI, and now a guaranteed winning league record in a power-five conference. It’s getting more and more difficult to imagine an NCAA Tournament that does not include South Carolina.
The Gamecocks took another step toward the Big Dance on Wednesday night, beating Tennessee 84-58 at Colonial Life Arena to ensure an over-.500 record in SEC play for just the fourth time in 25 seasons in the conference. Duane Notice scored 17 as the Gamecocks posted their largest margin of victory in a league game this season.
“We have a chance to finish our season the right way,” said USC head coach Frank Martin. “You want to play your best basketball of the year now. You don’t want to play it in December. It’s important that we don’t get wrapped up in those successes. Past experiences, the only thing they should do for our guys is reinforce that they’re a good basketball team when we play a certain way. That should give them a comforting feeling.”
South Carolina (23-5, 10-5 SEC) remained tied for second place in the SEC, keeping pace with Texas A&M, which defeated Mississippi State earlier in the night. The Gamecocks and Aggies are one game behind Kentucky with three regular-season contests remaining.
Although eight SEC squads with double-digit win totals have been left out of the NCAA Tournament since it expanded to 68 teams in 2011, USC’s RPI — an index used in selecting and seeing the field — is a relatively strong 31st, and analysts have projected the Gamecocks as high as a No. 6 seed in the NCAA field.
“We’re not worried about how many wins we’re going to get. We’re just worried about the next game,” Notice said. “The next game is the hardest game, and the most important game for us. We’d like to win every game, but we’re not looking too much into the future.”
Tennessee (13-15, 6-9) played without guard Kevin Punter, the SEC’s second-leading scorer at 22.2 points per game, who sat out with a stress fracture in his right foot. South Carolina was without four players due to illness, including backup point guard Marcus Stroman and reserve forward Raymond Doby with flu-like symptoms.
USC used an 11-0 first-half run to build an early cushion, and Notice sank a trio of 3s in the final two minutes to put the Gamecocks ahead 15 at the break. That lead ballooned early in the second half thanks to a 10-0 South Carolina run out of the locker room, reaching 25 after a Mindaugas Kacinas put-back with 16:15 remaining.
Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes — the former Clemson head coach, coaching a game at USC for the first time in two decades — had no answer for South Carolina’s inside presence. The Gamecocks struck for 42 points in the paint, the inside attack led by Michael Carrera with 16 and Laimonas Chatkevicius with 12.
“I thought they were just tougher all the way around,” Barnes said of USC. “... We had guys that just didn’t compete to start the game. I’m not sure they wouldn’t haven gotten a better workout in practice.”
It was all a far cry from the nine-point loss South Carolina suffered Jan. 23 in Knoxville. Although Tennessee crawled as close as 13 points with 9:30 remaining, USC used another big run to put the game away. Carrera and Kacinas sank back-to-back 3s to cap a 17-0 surge which ensured the Gamecocks of their highest single-season victory total in a decade.
“It seems like every time we have a press conference after we win a game, we find out about another record that we’ve surpassed or broken,” Notice said. “It feels good to kind of be on top and have this kind of feeling, because we’ve been through the struggles.”