It wasn't their best win, and it wasn't their prettiest, but South Carolina may have earned their most important win of the season on Saturday. The Gamecocks defeated the Florida Gators in overtime, 73-69, inside a sold-out Colonial Life Arena.
Entering the contest, Florida and South Carolina were tied with identical records in the SEC standings. An SEC championship is very important to this team but an NCAA Tournament bid would be much more memorable to the team and the fanbase. With their win Saturday, the Gamecocks took a big step to reaching both objectives. Without a collapse down the stretch, USC will likely eanrn an important top-four seed in the SEC Tournament next month. The victory also was a needed boost to their March Madness resume.
Despite future earnings being on the line, South Carolina needed the win to calm current terrors. They entered having lost two in a row, and seven games in a row to Florida. Head coach Frank Martin said that Kentucky broke his team's spirit last Saturday afternoon. A week later, his team may have earned it back in the same place it was broken.
The Gamecocks dropped an ugly game to SEC cellar-dweller Missouri earlier this week, making matters worse.
USC was ready from the tip in their game against Florida, earning a 7-0 lead and turning it into a 21-10 advantage 10 minutes into the game. With his mom in stands to see him play for the first time ever in Columbia, senior Lithuanian Mindaugas Kacinas hit his first four shots from the field. The Gamecocks extended their lead to 30-13 with seven minutes to play in the first half.
But, South Carolina would not score for the rest of the period. The final seven minutes of the half included a 20-0 Florida run that gave them a 33-30 halftime lead. The stretch included nine missed shot attempts for the Gamecocks and three turnovers.
Florida's momentum extended out of the break, earning a 39-32 lead. South Carolina did not bow down though and their defense picked up the slack, holding the Gators to a five-minute scoreless stretch. The Gamecocks used that run to take a one-point lead with 11 minutes left in regulation.
There would be ten lead changes in the final ten minutes of the second half and neither team would lead by more than four points at any moment.
South Carolina took a one-point lead on a Sindarius Thornwell dunk with 30 seconds left to play. UF drew a foul on the following possession, making 1-of-2 free throws. Both teams had attempts to win in the final seconds, but neither could convert and the game went to overtime.
Laimonas Chatkevicius, whose mother was also in town to see him play for the first time at USC, scored the first two South Carolina baskets of the extra period. The Gators hit a three-pointer with 2:42 left in the first overtime to take a one-point lead. But, Florida would not score for the rest of the period. Free throws down the stretch from Michael Carrera and Thornwell gave the Gamecocks the lead and the win.
The Lithuanian duo combined for 27 points on a special afternoon for the seniors. Carrera had yet another double-double, tallying 20 points, while also tying a career-high with 15 rebounds.
South Carolina now has 22 wins for the first time since 2006, and nine SEC wins for the first time since 2009. They're now marching towards March.