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February 18, 2009

USC-MSU Hoops Extra: Varnado not a factor

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Mississippi State center Jarvis Varnado was a concern, and a large one. Players averaging almost five blocks per game have to be.

South Carolina went right at him anyway.

The Gamecocks lost 75-70 to the Bulldogs on Wednesday, but it wasn't because of Varnado's presence. The big man had eight points and six rebounds, swatting four USC shots to keep more or less on his average.

But he didn't affect USC's gameplan.

"You definitely got to know he's down there," guard Devan Downey said. "But I don't think he really made that much of a difference."

Downey did take the ball hard to the rim a couple of times early in the game, head-faking Varnado so the big man would jump and then passing around him. Mike Holmes and Sam Muldrow got some easy buckets out of it.

Varnado did stop some possessions and began to turn them into points, blocking the shot and letting his teammates get the rebound. MSU turned 16 Gamecock turnovers into 20 points.

But otherwise, Varnado was loping downcourt many times after the play was already in motion. USC, as it said it wouldn't, didn't change the approach just for one individual.

FOUL TROUBLE: Not only was USC again not great from the free throw line (13-of-23), but the Gamecocks were hindered by constant whistles on their big men.

Dominique Archie, Holmes and Muldrow each got into foul trouble against MSU, contributing to them being taken out of the offensive gameplan. Coming off a stretch where the trio was a huge part of the Gamecocks winning six of seven games, the three had good numbers (combined 27 points, 24 rebounds) but had to turn the ball over late to the guard tandem.

"I think it hurt us," coach Darrin Horn said. "Obviously (Holmes and Muldrow are) our two best bigs. There's no question, when they're not available, that it impacts us."

Downey and Fredrick scored 19 and 11 points, respectively, but were a combined 3-for-10 from the arc. They were the ones who had to take the tough shots at the end of the game and while some connected, many didn't.

It was the second straight poor 3-point shooting night. USC was 5-of-21 in a win at Alabama and is 10-of-38 (26.3 percent) in the last two games.

The Gamecocks were second in the SEC (38.3 percent, to LSU's 38.4) coming into the game.

"I can't really think of a reason why," Downey said. "Got to get back to practice and correct this."

LOST OPPORTUNITY: Tennessee lost to Ole Miss on Wednesday but USC couldn't take advantage of the gift. The Gamecocks stood to have sole possession of first place in the SEC East, but fell to Mississippi State.

The loss dropped them back into a four-way tie for first with the Volunteers, Florida and Kentucky. Each has five games to play.

The Gamecocks will host Kentucky and Tennessee. Tennessee plays Kentucky next and will also have to play Florida. Florida plays the Volunteers and Wildcats among its last three games. Kentucky has Florida, Tennessee and league leader LSU on the future slate.

USC's coaches and players have said all year they don't keep an eye on the standings, but Downey and Zam Fredrick knew what was at stake. Downey mentioned the team's desire for a one-game cushion and Fredrick said he wasn't comforted that USC at least didn't lose any ground in the East.

"We're not looking for any moral victories," Fredrick said. "We came out here to win, we fell short and we're disappointed."

The chances are still good USC can claim the East, but its shot at the overall regular-season title may be gone. The Tigers improved to 10-1 by beating Arkansas on Wednesday and have at least a three-game lead over everybody with five to play.

ON HOLD: The Gamecocks also stood to claim at least their first .500 finish in the SEC since the 2003-04 season, but lost. They will try again for SEC win number eight at home against Arkansas on Saturday.

USC has only had two league winning seasons since joining the SEC in 1992, the regular-season championship season of 1996-97 and the year after. They went 8-8 in 2003-04 under coach Dave Odom and 8-8 in 1995-96 under Eddie Fogler.

GETTING CLOSER: Downey scored 19 points against the Bulldogs to trim his pursuit of the career 1,500-point mark to 36.



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