COLUMBIA — Kenny Gaines was a little concerned he might come out cold when Georgia didn’t get in a shoot-around early Saturday before the Bulldogs took on South Carolina. Turns out, Gaines didn’t need the warm up to help the Bulldogs win for the fifth time in six games.
Gaines, the 6-foot-3 sophomore from Atlanta, had a career-high 27 points off 9-of-14 shooting in Georgia’s 73-56 victory over the Gamecocks. He hit five of his nine 3-point tries as the Bulldogs (15-11, 9-5 Southeastern Conference) pulled away in the second half.
“I thought maybe it would hamper me a little bit shooting,” Gaines said of not going through the normal shoot-around because of the early afternoon start. “But it didn’t. I’ve had a good handle on the ball the past couple of days now. I just felt in my rhythm.”
So did Georgia, which swept both games with South Carolina (10-16, 3-11) and have won the past five in the series. It was also a solid bounce back from the team’s first loss over the past three weeks, a 67-48 defeat to Tennessee that ended a four-game SEC win streak.
The Bulldogs used a 16-1 run to start the second half to break away in a game tied at 34-all.
“In the second half, we turned up the defense,” he said. “We just got the job done.”
While Georgia was scoring, the Gamecocks were missing about everything they shot, starting the period on an 0-of-16 stretch from the field. It didn’t matter if they were from behind the arc, or close to the basket, Georgia’s tight defense kept them out of the basket.
“That’s tough, when you’re getting good looks and not hitting them,” South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwll said.
It also hurt when Gaines was getting free, squaring up and hitting his attempts.
South Carolina guard Brenton Williams said the team was slow on its defensive rotations to come around and defend Gaines from the outside. “We were seconds late and that gave him enough time to get off those shots.”
Gaines surpassed his previous high of 22 points set earlier this season against Alabama.
Marcus Thornton added 12 points and 10 rebounds for Georgia, his third double-double this season.
Thornton said the Bulldogs emphasized tightening up their defense in the second half. “We just tried to change some things, play a little harder,” he said. “We got some bounces and executed a little bit.”
South Carolina was looking for a third consecutive home win. But the Gamecocks missed their first 16 shots of the half as Georgia took control. A frustrated coach Frank Martin earned a technical foul for yelling at official C.J. Washington. Martin did not want to talk about the technical.
Thornwell had 18 points to lead the Gamecocks while Williams added 16.
The Bulldogs put things away with a strong run out of the break.
Brandon Morris started the surge with a three-point play and Thornton added four points. By the time Nemanja Djurisic nailed a 3-pointer, Georgia was ahead 50-35 and cruising.
South Carolina could not answer back as the Bulldogs eventually built a 21-point lead.
Georgia continued on its surprise run in the SEC this season. The Bulldogs looked lost back in November with a 1-4 start to the regular season, but have since found their footing during conference play and will remain third in the standings behind league leaders Florida and Kentucky.
Williams’ third 3-pointer in the first seven minutes put South Carolina ahead 13-6. But Georgia, behind the shooting of Gaines, rallied with a 20-9 run to move in front 26-22 with 5 minutes left in the half.
The Bulldogs were still up 34-31 on Charles Mann’s foul shots with 54.4 seconds to go when walk-on Brian Steele hit his second 3 of the period to send the teams into the locker room tied 34-all.
The Gamecocks tried to take advantage of their cold-weather prowess – all three of their SEC wins this season came with snow on the ground in South Carolina’s capital – and called for fans to dress for a “Whiteout with Blizzard Conditions.”
White hand towels were draped over many seats and even South Carolina’s women’s coach, Dawn Staley, wore white to back the men’s team. Gamecocks coach Frank Martin wore a dark suit, but a blazing white tie you might see in the movie, “Goodfellas.”
The gimmick didn’t help and the Gamecocks lost for the fifth time in their past seven games.
“I heard it was a little whiteout thing,” Georgia’s Morris said. “I didn’t know exactly what it meant.”