As I watched our men's basketball team improbably stomp Arkansas on Saturday night and slowly, joyfully came to the realization that we had likely locked up our first NCAA tournament appearance in 11 years, it suddenly hit me: this is probably the best Gamecock basketball moment of my life that I can remember. I was in fourth grade the last time we went to the tournament, so I had more important things going on then. I was three when BJ McKie and Larry Davis were winning us the SEC title in 1997. This is my new mountain top. When you really think about that, it kind of sucks. The best thing going for us in the last decade or more is (depending on how you look at it) this season right now or two NIT banners.
I think it's safe to say that the last dozen years haven't been the best. Whatever. That doesn't mean there haven't been great moments. Sure, they aren't Final Fours and national titles, but they're ours and they're the ones that I've gotten to see. This got me thinking: what are the best Gamecock basketball moments of my lifetime?
So here are the rules:
- I have to remember it and also be old enough to care. (Sorry Antonio Grant and Travis Kraft, five year old Dave doesn't remember you other than from YouTube so it doesn't count. Although, I do have a faint memory of Dad freaking out when Kraft hit the shot to beat Florida, no lie.)
- If I didn't watch it as it happened it can't be one of my favorites. I'm sure the two wins over Florida in 2006 were awesome. Sadly I didn't watch either of them. I'm as disappointed in 6th grade me as you are for this, but such is life.
- These are my rankings based on my experience with each game. I'm sure some of yours would be different. Feel free to light me up in the comments section (I'd probably do it to you).
8. Ole Miss, SEC Tournament 2015
Tyrone Johnson's finest hour and perhaps the second greatest fanhood mood swing I've ever had in terms of metaphorically leaning towards the precipice of a terrible loss and then triumphantly watching something crazy happen to save me from breaking furniture in the house. (Number one on that list has to be the Clowney Hit against Michigan in the 2013 Outback Bowl, right after the refs screwed us on that fourth down chain measuring BS. Never in my life have I gone from swearing like a sailor in front of my extended family to as giddy as a kid in candy store so fast.) When that Ole Miss guy hit a four-point-play to seemingly win the game, I just about put my fist through the TV. It was one of those things that would only happen to the Gamecocks, you know? Crap like that doesn't happen to Duke. Somehow, though, on that day, the basketball gods decided to give us a second-chance on a play that, until that moment, would have never happened for the Gamecocks, and will likely never happen again. You know the story - Johnson gets fouled shooting a half court three pointer with no time left (and it was a foul. A stupid, stupid, stupid foul - but still a foul) and we somehow win after committing the second worst foul I have ever seen. We just happened to get bailed out by possibly the worst foul in the history of basketball. (Don't forget, that kept Ole Miss out of the NCAA Tournament). It's on the list for me for the pure entertainment value of watching Marshall Henderson's face after we won.
7. Iowa State 2014
I was actually at this game in Brooklyn. I was in NYC for class credit and realized that I would be there right when the Gamecocks happened to be in town, so I talked a couple of buddies into buying some StubHub tickets with me for good seats at midcourt, which cost us around $15-20. We found out when we got there that these were actually tickets in the Jay-Z VIP lounge in the Barclays Center, which is where I then watched us beat a top ten Iowa State Cyclones team at a neutral site while kicking back in my leather recliner and free food with other South Carolina fans who had also hit the jackpot of all jackpots that day. It's still easily my greatest StubHub success story.
6. Kentucky 2014
Turned out to be even more memorable after the Wildcats made a run to the National Title game, but I watched this one with one of my buddies and when we extended the lead to something like 17 points, I remember him saying, "I can't believe this is happening. Y'all are so bad." And he wasn't wrong - we were 10-18 at the time and had just recently been blown out by Georgia at home and then on the road at Auburn. But somehow, there we were. We tried so hard to give the game away in the last few seconds after a four point play and then a steal, bucket and foul on Julius Randle, but we somehow held on and it was glorious. It was the precise moment when I realized, "Wow. If we give Frank Martin time, we might be alright." This was also the game where Dr. Pastides staked his claim for "Coolest college president alive" with his famous reasoning for storming the court of "Once I realized I was paying [the fine] anyway, I ran down ... I enjoyed every dollar." What a legend. (Sidenote: This whole video reminded me how happy I am that those horrible camo jerseys from a couple years ago are gone. Nothing screams, "We have no identity" more than camo jerseys as your regular uniforms.)
5. Downey buzzer beater at Rupp Arena
I weirdly remember very little about the actual game itself, other than it was at Rupp and it was back and forth the whole way. However, what I vividly remember is watching Downey dribble down the clock with the ball in his hands and the game on the line but not being nervous in any way. I knew we were fine as long as he was taking the shot. The shot itself was unbelievable, obviously, fading back over a taller defender and splashing it like a heavy rock into the deepest part of a pond; but I think my mindset in that moment was what was most unbelievable. That, right there, is the greatest testimony to the greatness of Devan Downey that anyone could ever give: David Salley - who has worried for every second of every South Carolina sporting event he has ever watched - was completely at ease with the ball in Downey's hands. He was a bad, bad man.
4. Run to 2006 SEC Title Game
It had been a weird year. We had beaten the eventual national champions, the Florida Gators, twice. But we had also suffered some awful losses, including four of our last five. We were an enigma - the basketball equivalent of Forrest Gump's box of chocolates - you never knew what you were going to get on any given night. And then we got hot at the perfect time. We cruised past Mississippi State and then found a way to beat, on back-to-back days, nationally ranked Tennessee and Kentucky - two teams who had both swept us in the regular season. It was magical. But it was also satisfying. We knew we had talent all year, it was just about stringing it together. I remember the Sunday we played Florida for the SEC title and rushing home from family lunch after church with the game on the radio the whole way back. We were going to win - I just had that feeling. We had already beaten the Gators twice. At 18-14, a win would put us into the NCAA tournament and a loss would send us to the NIT. It was that simple. Well, you know what happened. We fell behind, came back in the second half, tied the game in the last 30 seconds and then had Joakim Noah rip our hearts out in the final moments with an offensive rebound on their final possession for the go-ahead bucket and then a block of Renaldo Balkman at the buzzer. It still hurts - but I'll never forget the run it took to get there. (P.S. SEC Tournament coverage in the video starts at 4:15, although the rest of it is pretty awesome too, other than the terrible background music.)
3. Zam Frederick buzzer beater to beat Florida
Most of the Darrin Horn era was a complete dumpster fire, but there were some sprinkles of fun on top of the wreckage and this was one of the best. Stephen Garcia couldn't have thrown a more accurate full court football pass than Mike Holmes did on that play. Truth be told, Garcia probably would have taken two steps back and launched the ball up for grabs to the middle of the court off of his back foot (it was his go-to play). But luckily for Zam, Chandler Parsons, now of the Dallas Mavericks, missed the front end of a one-and-one and the guy behind him blacked out or something in the backcourt and forgot he still had three seconds to play, leading to this moment in all its glory.
2. 2005 and 2006 NIT Champs
No joke, I had the 2005 NIT champs t-shirt and wore it with pride. It was one of my favorite articles of clothing simply because we had won something. I watched Tarence Kinsey drain that three-pointer to beat St. Joseph's in my grandparents' cabin at Santee State Park and did that kind of silent screaming thing you see ADHD kids do when the teacher tells them they need to let off some energy in the hallway, as I tried not to wake every person in the house. It was even better in my mind when we won it again the next year, because then I got to wear the "Back to Back NIT Champions" shirt. I guess at that age I didn't realize that by 2006 most of the fan base was pissed at Dave Odom for not getting either of those teams to the NCAA Tournament, but hey, at age 12, ignorance is bliss. (Fun exercise: go back through those NIT runs and look at some of the teams we beat. Louisville, Michigan, Georgetown, Miami, Cincinnati etc. Sheesh. Why didn't we improve dramatically from that point forward like all of them? Oh - Darrin Horn, that's right.)
1. Devan Downey beats #1 Kentucky
You don't need me to tell you about this one - in all likelihood, you probably remember where you were when you were watching it, much less every second of the game itself. Sam Muldrow (one of the most underrated Gamecock basketball players of all-time) ate DeMarcus Cousins' lunch all day long down low. Downey played arguably his greatest game in a South Carolina uniform (which is truly saying something). The crowd was ravenous the entire night and we got probably our best start-to-finish court storming since Antonio Grant's miracle shot. Simply put, it's the basketball equivalent of the Alabama football victory (arguably a bigger upset too, considering John Wall and Cousins were both on that Wildcats team) and the defining South Carolina basketball moment of the last ten years. If I could only have one of these moments, I'm taking this one.
And here's one of just Devan Downey doing absurd things.
So, there they are. A top-10 list would have been better, you're right, but those eight stood out the most to me, so that's what I got. Which ones did I leave off? Do you have an amazing Travis Kraft or Antonio Grant game story? Let me know in the comments - and here's to having much greater memories in the next couple of weeks.
P.S. Here's the Antonio Grant and Travis Kraft videos just for kicks and giggles. I am a man of the people, after all.
If that can't get you through the day, I don't know what can.