The moment couldn't have been lost on the Gamecocks. Down two points with two minutes to play against LSU, the players huddled around head coach Frank Martin during a timeout.
Carolina's first two SEC games had ended in taut, last-second losses. Another down-to-the-wire finish was at hand. But if the Gamecocks expected a sermon about redemption or seizing the moment, they received a different message from their head coach.
"Rarely do I ever look back into negative experiences," Martin recalled of the huddle. "That moment, all I spoke about was what a great opportunity to step up and get a stop right now. Let's get a stop right now. We don't need six stops; we need one."
The Gamecocks got that stop. And many more.
Thanks to a ferocious final stretch of defense, South Carolina finally got the ending it wanted. The Gamecocks left Baton Rouge with an 82-73 overtime victory, giving them a chance to even their conference record against Vanderbilt (6-9, 0-3 SEC) Saturday at Colonial Life Arena.
Pre-tip reads before the Gamecocks and Commodores tip in Columbia (1:30 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network):
Trivia Question: Which SEC team returned the lowest percentage of its points from last year?
That distinction belongs to Vanderbilt, which lost its top six scorers from last year's SEC Tournament championship team. Two-time SEC scoring champion John Jenkins, athletic wing Jeffery Taylor, and block-of-granite center Festus Ezeli were all among the first 31 players taken in the NBA Draft. When preseason camp convened, the Commodores had lost 88% of their scoring from last year. Their returning roster only had three starts combined.
This picture says it all about Vanderbilt's struggle to score under 14th-year head coach Kevin Stallings. (Courtesy: AP)
Predictably, Vanderbilt has struggled to score. The Commodores rank last in the SEC in:
· Points per game (59.1 ppg)
· Field goal percentage (40.5%)
· Free-throw percentage (56.8%, 2nd-worst in the nation)
Those numbers have put the Commodores on pace for their lowest-scoring season since 1949. The 'Dores have scored 33 points in a game - twice.
Yet Vanderbilt has also shown flashes of danger. The Commodores took Kentucky to the wire at Memorial Gymnasium, and fell to Ole Miss after the Rebels needed a 35-footer at the buzzer to force overtime.
Their offense may be erratic, but the Commodores have stayed competitive thanks to an active, hustling, helping defense. Vanderbilt's defensive efficiency ranks 84th in the nation, compared to an offensive efficiency ranking of 251st. Of Carolina's opponents to date, only Clemson and Mississippi State -- both losses -- have better defensive efficiency rankings than the Commodores.
Vanderbilt Efficiency Rankings
Offense: 251st NCAA
Defense: 84th NCAA
Permission To Launch: Vanderbilt is the SEC's biggest purveyor of "5-out motion," spacing all five players around the perimeter and running an infinite number of slips, counters, and cuts off their basic set. That often results in a bulk supply of three-pointers: the Commodores rank 6th in the nation, getting 39.3% of their offense from three-pointers.
"They play old-fashioned basketball -- which is the one I like watching, by the way," Martin said on "Carolina Calls." "They pass, they cut, they share the ball. It's not a guy dribbling all the time."
Leading scorer Kedren Johnson (left) is constantly in "attack mode," according to Martin.
Martin says his team's ability to defend ball screens will be key to stopping Vanderbilt's long-range barrage.
"I watched that Ole Miss game film. Ole Miss was late on their ball screen coverage. That ball got in the paint. They started getting sucked in. Next pass made. Three, three, three," Martin said.
The Gamecocks need to call out their ball screen defenses early, and prevent Vandy's dribblers from putting them on their heels with attacks to the paint. Failure to do so could lead to over-helping and late close-outs on three-point shooters. Sophomore Kedren Johnson (team-high 15.9 ppg) is Vandy's best finisher off the dribble, and guards Kyle Fuller and Dai-John Parker can also shed defenders around screens. Freshmen Kevin Bright (48.8% 3pt.) and Sheldon Jeter (41.7% 3pt.) lurk on back cuts and three-pointers.
A team that struggles to score doesn't need any easy baskets. The Gamecocks don't need to help with any communication-born breakdowns.
Three's Away: Vanderbilt has made a three-pointer in every game since the advent of the three-point line in 1986, a span of 847 games. The Gamecocks have held two opponents this year, S.C. State and Mississippi State, without a three-point bucket. Carolina and Memphis are the only schools nationally with a pair of three-point shutouts over Division I opponents.
0 Three-Point Field Goals Allowed - NCAA Leaders
1. South Carolina (S.C. State, Mississippi State)
Memphis (UAB, Oral Roberts)
Bruce Alert: A revolving door of backcourt players have stepped up their scoring in SEC play. Could Bruce Ellington be next? Check out his career numbers against Vanderbilt:
Bruce Ellington vs. Vanderbilt (4 games): 17.5 ppg, 46.4% 3pt. (13-28 3pt.), 3.0 apg, 2:1 Assist/TO ratio
In Praise of Jackson: With his team leading by 2, LSU head coach Johnny Jones called timeout, hoping to draw a play that would give his team a two-possession lead. While he slashed away on a whiteboard, the Gamecocks were ready with a curveball. When they re-took the floor, Carolina switched to a 3-2 zone, with 6'5" Lakeem Jackson joining the top line at small forward.
Despite limited reps at his position, Lakeem Jackson's job in Carolina's 3-2 zone helped swing the game against LSU.
The gambit paid off. Jackson's length bothered LSU point guard Anthony Hickey, and the Tigers' offense sputtered with him. Over the last seven minutes, Carolina held LSU to 2-of-12 field goal shooting. They also outrebounded the Tigers 8-1.
LSU Offense vs. 3-2 Zone - Final 7:00
Running a set 0-10
Rebound Margin -7
"I have not given Lakeem as many repetitions as he needs to be comfortable in that spot. Yet he acted like a senior, went out there, and took care of business," Martin said.
Given Vanderbilt's penchant for three-pointers, could we see more of the 3-2 Saturday?
Notable Quotable: "I had somebody ask me the other day ask me how I was sleeping and I told them I was sleeping like a baby. I was waking up every two hours and crying."
-Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings during the pre-season, on concerns over his team's youth, to Nashville City Paper
And Finally: The Gamecocks spied a visitor during their closed practice at Pete Maravich Assembly Center Tuesday night. A stray cat was seen roaming around the concourse (and no, it wasn't Mike the Tiger).
Our pre-game coverage begins at 1:00 p.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. We'll see you at Colonial Life Arena. -AD--