Entering Saturday, No. 22 South Carolina was undefeated and Vanderbilt was winless in SEC play.
Those facts remained the same as the sun set outside Colonial Life Arena as the Gamecocks defeated the Commodores, 69-65. The win moves USC to 15-0 and the program is now 2-0 in conference games for the first time since the 2009-10 season.
Vandy's Luke Kornet put the talented ‘Dores up early on, knocking down two three-pointers in the opening minute creating an 8-0 run to open the game. USC freshman Chris Silva picked up two fouls, quickly making the South Carolina start go from bad to worse. South Carolina was down 15-7 at an early media timeout after committing three consecutive turnovers on three straight post-up attempts.
The Gamecocks were having a tough time getting any offense going against the length of Vanderbilt's defense. An old-school and-one from Mindaugas Kacinas was the highlight of a slow USC gain that made it a one possession game. Michael Carrera followed with a huge block on the other end and the momentum felt like it was finally starting to swing.
A string of Vandy free throws helped them build their lead to seven. Duane Notice knocked down two three-pointers that kept the game alive and exciting. South Carolina twice cut Vanderbilt's lead to two points but the Commodores had an answer each time down the floor. Kevin Stallings' bunch would continue to hold off the Gamecocks entering halftime. VU's 38-35 lead at the break marked the first time this season that USC trailed at the half.
The second half began as royally painful as the game's tip for South Carolina. Vanderbilt scored five quick points and Carrera picked up two fouls to give himself four for the game with just under a half to play.
Vandy held a solid lead once again but Kacinas stepped up with another and-one. His Lithuanian brother-from-another-mother, Laimonas Chatkevicius, contributed a bucket as well and the USC deficit was down to just three again. Minutes later, a rare Marcus Stroman trey got the Gamecocks within one. But again, the Commodores answered. Stroman found Chatkevicius right underneath the basket for a lay-up. Yet, Vanderbilt was there for a response on their next possession.
Work continued to be laid down, still trying to claw their way out of the 8-0 hole to open the game. South Carolina tied the game for the first time with 11:22 to play after a Chatkevicius lay-up. Vanderbilt committed an offensive foul on the other side and a packed Colonial Life Arena erupted. Freshman P.J. Dozier knocked down a pull-up jumper in the lane to give USC their first lead of the day. Dozier pushed the pace and scored a bucket in transition. All of a sudden, the Gamecocks had a four-point lead.
The only thing as poor as South Carolina's free throw shooting today was the officiating. Both let the Commodores back in the game. But the officials gave the Gamecocks possibly their biggest break. Stallings subbed in projected first round pick Damian Jones with four fouls under the 10-minute mark. Jones played one possession of offense and was called for an offensive foul. Vanderbilt's best player was now out and on the bench for good with a large and important set of minutes to play.
The Gamecocks held a two-point lead at the under four-minute timeout. USC had turned the ball over on three of their last four possessions but Vandy had been unable to capitalize. Sindarius Thornwell hit back-to-back jumpers as well as a few contributions from the charity stripe to officially put the Commodores away. Down the stretch, Vanderbilt missed nine consecutive shots and 16 of their last 17 attempts from the field.
Thornwell scored his 1,000th career point in the second half, becoming the 42nd player in USC history to achieve that mark and the first since 2010. He finished with a game-high 19 points and will be in the running for an SEC Player of the Week award after his performances against Vanderbilt and Auburn.
South Carolina does not take the floor again until Wednesday, when they hit the road for a 9:00 p.m. ET tip-off in Tuscaloosa against the Alabama Crimson Tide.