S. Carolina 61, Miss. Val. St. 57
COLUMBIA -- At this point, style didn't matter.
No, it didn't matter that South Carolina found itself trailing by 11 points against Mississippi Valley State with 6:36 left in the second half Tuesday, two nights after it lost to Tennessee State and a week after it lost to Elon.
It didn't matter that Mississippi Valley State plays in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, one of the worst leagues in Division I college basketball.
Or that the Gamecocks were down to nine players after backup guard Brenton Williams was ruled out two to four weeks earlier in the day because of a sprained left knee suffered Sunday. And it especially didn't matter that USC has a date Friday night in Las Vegas with North Carolina, the No. 1 team in the country.
All that mattered for the Gamecocks last night was winning -- be it pretty, ugly or somewhere in between. And it was ugly, very ugly, at times for USC, which came back and hung on for a 61-57 victory. Coach Darrin Horn said several times in recent weeks that his team had long since moved past last season's 2-11 finish. A loss Tuesday would've made it impossible for those who follow his program to ignore the continued failures.
While Horn and Co. smiled afterward, the fact that USC struggled shooting in the second half remains a liability as the Gamecocks' schedule starts to get tougher, with Southern California or UNLV on Saturday in Vegas, then Providence at home and a trip to Clemson. Horn is taking the long view on this season for his young squad.
"I think in talking with the guys, one of the things that hurt us in Sunday's game was that they kind of listened to maybe this room (of media members) or themselves and it was a must win," Horn said. "It's hard to play when you put that kind of pressure on yourself. Unless they're going to stop the season or cancel something, I don't think you can have a must win in November. We really, for the last 48 hours and throughout the game, tried to keep them focused on: don't worry about what's going on, worry about the process."
Part of the process for freshman shooting guard Damien Leonard, a highly regarded recruit, involved playing gritty defense in addition to shooting. He did both in the first half. In the first three games, Leonard shot 5 of 32 and 3 of 21 on 3-poitners. In the first half, he was 4 of 7 and 4 of 5, by doing a better job of following his shots. He scored 12 points and finished with 16.
USC (2-2) led 30-26 at halftime, but trailed 50-39 with 6:36 left in the game, after making 4 of 18 shots to start the second half.
Horn sensed some nervousness from his team, which trailed Tennessee State by 22 with 14:49 left Sunday and lost by one. Tuesday, USC forced seven turnovers in the final 4:38 to come back. Leonard stole the ball with 2:54 left and converted it into a layup that cut the lead to 53-52.
"When I got to college, defense was one of my weaknesses," Leonard said. "I knew I needed to improve on it."
Finally feeling the relief of a win, though one with little staying power, forward Malik Cooke, the lone senior, was asked to consider the next, much tougher game.
"I think we can win," he said. "I know we can win."