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March 17, 2009

Gamecocks tip off in NIT tonight

The marquee outside Colonial Life Arena read, "Davidson at South Carolina."

It should have read, "Undercard: Davidson at South Carolina. Main event -- Curry vs. Downey."

"I don't know if you're going to stop a guy who shoots 20-plus times a game and put up 30 all year long," USC coach Darrin Horn said on Monday. "Hopefully you make him work for everything and you don't let him hit anything too easy."

Horn was talking about Davidson point guard Stephen Curry, although he could have been referring to his own point guard, Devan Downey. Each runs the show on their respective teams and each is a dangerous scorer.

It's going to be a heck of a matchup, and that was originally between two schools that feel they were slighted by the NCAA tournament. Add in the Downey vs. Curry matchup, and it's easy to see why ESPN2 claimed the game as one of tonight's telecasts.

"He's a terrific player, there's no question, and Devan is, too," Horn said. "Hopefully that won't take away from the actual matchup itself."

It seemed to be a likely combination when the Wildcats (27-6) and Gamecocks (21-9) were each left out of the NCAA's field of 65, relegating them to the NIT. The geographical boundaries were close enough to pair the two, although the rest of that side of the bracket extends to the Midwest and the West Coast.

The two guards naturally drew the most attention. On one side was Downey, two-time first-team All-SEC selection and the Gamecocks' heart and soul. He's drawn the praise of every opposing coach who's gone against him and has been the linchpin of the team this year.

Then there's Curry, who became the nation's darling last year when he led Davidson on a sizzling run to the Elite Eight. He turned down the pros for another year of college, saying he wanted to be a better point guard, but his scoring never dipped -- he leads the country with 28.6 points per game while posting 5.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game.

Each team has a chip on its shoulder. The Gamecocks and Wildcats each bowed out in their conference tournaments but felt they had done enough for an NCAA bid -- USC after winning 10 SEC games and tying for the SEC East championship, the Wildcats after playing an aggressive schedule and already holding the selection committee's attention following last year.

But on Sunday, the field was announced and each team wasn't in it. That set up the intriguing Downey-Curry tilt and another USC storyline.

Seniors Zam Fredrick and Branden Conrad are each facing the potential last game of their careers every time they step on the floor. Fredrick, who said the scenario really hit him after the bid was announced, spoke about it.

"This could be my last game," Fredrick said. "This could be my last practice today. Might be my last time talking to y'all.

"I'll put a little extra emphasis on it, you'll think about it, go out and play as hard as you can, leave it all on the floor. But you should do that every game anyway."

Fredrick will have to help out Downey with guarding the explosive Curry -- "(Defend him) the same way you defend everybody else," he said -- but the main objective is to shut down all of the Wildcats. Only then can the Gamecocks win, advance and perhaps keep proving they are a better team than the NCAA tournament thought.

Even if it has to go through Curry.

"No different than when people have asked, 'How do you stop Devan Downey?,'" Horn said. "I don't know that you stop Devan Downey. He might stop himself on occasion.

"Good players find a way to do what they do."

Fredrick didn't concern himself with the opponent so much as the situation. After three years, the last two where he started all but one game, tonight might be the last time he hears his name announced.

"I'm trying to make it last as long as I can, because like y'all said, this is my last season and I just want to go out a winner," he said.



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