No. 22 South Carolina wrapped up its SEC opener on Tuesday night, defeating the Auburn Tigers 81-69 on the road. The Gamecocks improve their record to 14-0, remaining the lone undefeated team in the Southeastern Conference and one of two undefeated teams nationally.
USC entered Tuesday's game with an 8-16 record all-time in SEC openers. They lost to Florida at home last season to open conference play, a loss that was part of a 1-6 start against conference foes. Auburn had won six of the last seven meetings, including three in a row on their home floor against the Gamecocks. The Carolina program was also 2-13 against Bruce Pearl-coached teams entering Tuesday's match-up.
The Tigers pushed the pace early on, owning the tempo of the game and producing a 9-7 lead in the opening moments. South Carolina responded with a calm, effective run, as they would all night. USC produced a 12-0 surge, turning four Auburn turnovers into points to take an 18-9 lead. They would never give up that lead the rest of the game.
The Tigers went on a small 5-0 run, but Frank Martin's bunch responded with a 5-0 run of their own. Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell connected on three-pointers to extend South Carolina's lead. The Gamecocks were turning the Tigers over and making them pay on the other end, often with three-point baskets. South Carolina held a 43-30 lead at halftime with Auburn committing 15 first-half turnovers.
Pearl's bunch again controlled the tempo to begin the second half. Transition makes on offense and pressing, tight defense were making life difficult for South Carolina out of the break. The Tiger offense began to open up as well. Like against Memphis, the Gamecock defense was being carved up by penetration. In that game, it often sent Memphis to the free throw line. Against Auburn, these set of Tigers were using the collapsing USC defense for kick outs. Open three-point baskets were starting to fall, leveling the playing field against the healthier, more talented South Carolina team.
Several times Auburn sliced USC's lead to a two-possession ballgame. Every time though, the composed, veteran Gamecocks were there with an answer. The Tigers made a run, Thornwell and Michael Carrera were there to knock down treys. They'd make another run, and the Lithuanian duo of Mindaugas Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius were there with clutch hooks off post-ups and putbacks. Never did they panic, always composed, Martin's team always had the perfectly timed response to Auburn's attacks.
Thornwell made a career-high five three-pointers on Tuesday night, ending the game with a team-high 22 points, marking the 10th 20-point game of his career. Five Gamecocks scored in double figures, including Thornwell, Notice, Carrera, Chatkevicius and sophomore guard Marcus Stroman.
It was the first SEC opening win for South Carolina since 2011, and the Gamecocks first SEC opening road win since 2010. USC faces a talented Vanderbilt team on Saturday at Colonial Life Arena. The Commodores will likely be the best team Carolina has faced this season. Let's hope they have another response in them.