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February 7, 2009Operation Sellout was a success and so was the event the crowd came to see.
South Carolina whipped Georgia 79-68 on Saturday, giving the announced crowd of 18,000 an individually highlighted game that saw the Gamecocks never in danger of losing. Playing in front of just the second sellout in Colonial Life Arena's history, USC crept within a half-game of first place in the SEC East and cruised into a couple of days of relaxation.
With no game for seven days, the Gamecocks (17-5, 6-3 SEC) could afford to take a half-hour or so and look at the surroundings. USC is just behind Florida in the division, a sparkling 5-0 in SEC games at home and one game past the halfway mark of league play.
But not satisfied.
The Bulldogs (9-14, 0-8) weren't ever within 10 points of the lead for the final 30 minutes. Yet there was still a sense of relief once the game was decided.
No letdown this year. Against an opponent USC has recently played flat against, the Gamecocks were on top comfortably early and stayed that way.
"This is probably one of the best crowds I've ever played in front of," forward Dominique Archie said. "We fed off it tonight."
Sam Muldrow pumped in a career-high 18 points and led all of the Gamecocks' starters, who each were in double figures. Archie finished one rebound from a double-double with 12 points and nine boards; Mike Holmes played a terrific game with 13 points, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals; and Zam Fredrick scored 13 with three assists.
Leading scorer Devan Downey only had 10 points and turned the ball over seven times. Still, he never had to slip into take-over mode, and the result was eight assists, part of 17 for the team.
"What makes a player special is how he impacts the game," coach Darrin Horn said. "He doesn't necessarily have to have 20 or shoot for high percentage to impact the game. He got everybody else involved as well."
The Gamecocks pounded inside against Georgia, using their length and speed to slip past the Bulldogs' posts during the first half. Holmes and Muldrow began their solid games after Downey and Fredrick staked USC to an early lead and just kept adding to it.
USC was cold at the end of the first half but Georgia couldn't take advantage, missing five straight field goals, and then the Gamecocks found the answer. Fredrick and Evka Baniulis connected on consecutive 3-pointers, pushing the lead back to 18 points and setting the game's theme.
USC drained 10 from the arc, Archie and Fredrick with three apiece. With the shots from long range hitting, there was no need to worry about free throws -- and then the Gamecocks made 11-of-15 from the stripe.
Horn emptied the bench with two minutes to go, which got Georgia within 11, but nobody was concerned. The high-fives began shortly thereafter and USC was officially past its SEC win total of each of the past two years.
Horn thanked the crowd and praised his players for continuing to find ways to get it done. Archie said he was pleased with how everything seemed to be coming together this season after his first two years of playing were filled with heartache.
Then there was Muldrow, the man of the hour after improving his career-high point total by six.
"I just thank my guards for finding me," he said. "Getting lost under the basket; I just played my role. Had to bounce back from our Florida game."
"Sam is a guy that we thought could come in and impact things," Horn said. "He plays hard. He affects things. His numbers were maybe more impressive, especially in the points column, than maybe they have been."
The Gamecocks are off until beginning a two-game road swing on Feb. 14. The end is starting to come into sight, but USC is thinking it can be pushed back quite a way, the way it's playing.
"Our guys have just continued to respond to challenges, win or lose," Horn said. "Really proud of the way our guys have played."
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