After last night's wild ending the South Carolina Gamecocks will head out onto the Bridgestone Arena floor for their third game in three days.
That's madness, but then again, it is March. USC has been here before, knocking off Auburn and Arkansas in last year's SEC Tournament to advance to play fourth-seeded Tennessee. The Gamecocks fell to the Vols, 59-44, but this season's opponent doesn't have recent history on their side like UT did.
The Vols owned the Gamecocks. The 'Dawgs? Not so much, and it wasn't until recently that USC turned the tide. After a five-game win streak against South Carolina, Georgia lost both meetings this season.
The first meeting occurred in Columbia on January 31. After finishing their nonconference slate an impressive seven-game win streak, the Gamecocks entered the gym that Saturday afternoon having lost six of their first seven SEC games. Georgia converted just four field goal attempts in the second half on their way to shooting 22 percent from the field, an SEC opponent low in South Carolina record books. The Gamecocks were up as much as 15 before the 'Dawgs cut it to seven with 11 minutes remaining. Georgia head coach Mark Fox argued a call at that point and received a technical foul. USC then built it's lead to 49-36 and never looked back, walking away with a 67-50 win. It was just their second win since January 3 (Iowa State). After the game Frank Martin finally acknowledged how the big win over the Cyclones changed the focus and determination of his team. He felt the win got his team back in a sane mental state. Laimonas Chatkevicius led the way with 12 points, Duane Notice contributed 11, and Sindarius Thornwell and Tyrone Johnson both tallied 10. Georgia was without leading scorer and rebounder Marcus Thornton due to a concussion but South Carolina was also missing Demetrius Henry and Justin McKie due to concussions.
Thornton was available for the rematch a little over two weeks later on February 17 in Athens. Georgia wasn't ready to play and got out to a slow start. South Carolina took advantage and opened up an early 15-4 lead. The Gamecocks got up by as much as 21 in the first half and went into halftime with a 41-23 lead. The Gamecocks hit seven 3-pointers in the first half. The Bulldogs used pin-point accuracy from behind the arc to get back into the game. Nemanja Djurisic was out for most of the first half due to foul trouble but he started a string of treys that ignited a UGA run. They tied the game at 51 all but South Carolina answered and Georgia never led. Mindaugas Kacinas had a lay-in followed by back-to-back 3s by Johnson and Notice. That quick spurt of an answer was enough to give the Gamecocks confidence as they closed out their 64-58 win, beating UGA in Athens for the first time since 2009 and sweeping the season series. Johnson and Notice led the way with 17 points each. Thornton had returned but he was obviously not comfortable while still searching for his groove offensively. JJ Frazier, who had led the Bulldogs with 16 points in the previous meeting, was out with a hairline fracture in his hand and a broken bone in his face. This was Marcus Stroman's third consecutive absence due to the throat infection and before the game Martin announced the suspensions of Demetrius Henry and Shamiek Sheppard, consequences that still stand.
Tonight's match-up will be the first meeting between the two schools in the SEC Tournament since 1997, a 78-63 Georgia win. To keep this year's toruney run alive, the Gamecocks will need to continue their suffocating defense and will require all hands on deck offensively.
South Carolina forced 21 turnovers last night, 12 of them steals. The 21 turnovers were the second most on the season, having pressured UNC-Asheville earlier this year to turn the ball over 22 times. The 12 steals were also the second most on the season, having stripped Marshall 13 times a few months back. Ole Miss shot 30 percent from the field last night, the lowest opponent field goal percentage in SEC tournament history for South Carolina.
Despite a sluggish offense last night, the Gamecocks converted on clutch half-court possessions to put themselves in position to win. Michael Carrera led with 16 points, 13 of them coming in the first half. It marked his fourth consecutive game of scoring in double-figures. He's averaging 14 points and seven rebounds over the last four games. Sindarius Thornwell didn't make a bucket in first half but rebounded for 10 points in the second half, including two timely lay-ins in the game's final minutes. Tyrone Johnson didn't make a field goal all night but sunk five free throws, including the three at the end to gain the win.
Thornwell has had great success in three of the four meetings against Georgia in his career. That trend will need to continue. The Gamecocks defense appears to be humming but Georgia plays a similar style and USC cannot let offensive misfortune effect their hustle, tenacity, and execution on the defensive end.
Last night's victory marked the second straight season with at least two SEC Tournament wins, a feat that has never been accomplish in program history. "So, so proud of the guys that wear garnet and black," Frank Martin said after the game. "Just their fight, their resolve, their unwillingness to give in regardless of the situations in the game." Michael Carrera said after the game that he wasn't tired and that he "could play another half."
South Carolina will be playing three games in three days, the mark where coaches say your legs finally get to you. On feeble legs, the Gamecocks will undoubtedly be faced with adverse situations once again. Will they show the fight, resolve, and unwillingness to give in that made their coach and fanbase so proud?
We'll find out: SEC Network, 9:30 p.m. ET, in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.