COLUMBIA — South Carolina figured to improve this season under first-year coach Darrin Horn. Now, the Gamecocks have a chance to make a leap to where few thought they'd land when fall practice began -- the NCAA tournament.
That road gets harder the next week with games at Kentucky on Saturday and Florida on Tuesday as the Gamecocks hope to build an Southeastern Conference resume that could get them into the madness come March.
"We won three at home," junior point guard and Chester native Devan Downey said. "That's good. But after this, we're going to put that behind us, get out there on that road and see what we can do."
So far, that hasn't been much.
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The two league defeats for the Gamecocks (15-4, 4-2 SEC) came in their only SEC games away from the Colonial Life Arena, 85-68 at LSU and 82-79 at Tennessee. The three straight home victories, though, have revived a team that hadn't won more than 14 games the previous two seasons and hasn't had a winning SEC record since 1998.
Horn won't look past Saturday when he takes the Gamecocks to his native state -- he graduated from Tates Creek High in Lexington, Ky. -- at a place where USC hasn't won since 1997. He chided a reporter after Wednesday night's 86-76 win over Vanderbilt when the question asked about both road games. "We never look past the next game," Horn, 36, said in clipped coach speak.
He must understand the chance USC has this season.
The SEC is far from the powerhouse basketball league it has been in the past.
No. 24 Kentucky was the league's only representative in the Top 25 this week, a stay that could end by Monday because the Wildcats lost at Ole Miss on Tuesday night.
A week earlier, it was Florida at No. 24 attempting to maintain the league's national profile -- and South Carolina squashing it with a last second, 70-69 victory over the Gators.
A road victory or two -- there are six SEC teams entering Thursday winless on the road -- could go a long way toward putting South Carolina in the NCAA tournament mix.
The Gamecocks chances looked to take a serious hit at home against Vanderbilt as all of a 13-point, second-half lead disappeared as the Commodores moved in front.
Downey, the 5-9 dynamo who's second in SEC scoring, rescued South Carolina with his speed and elusiveness. He had 12 of his 18 points after halftime to fuel the Gamecocks' decisive 22-7 run.
What Horn liked seeing was how his club didn't panic or wilt when Vanderbilt shut the Gamecocks down for a good stretch of the second half to take a 49-48 lead after trailing 45-32. Doing that at home is one thing. Horn knows too well turning the same trick at Rupp Arena is vastly more difficult.
South Carolina has won big road games before. Zam Fredrick's basket in the final seconds was the difference in an 85-84 victory at then 19th-ranked Baylor earlier this month.
Horn didn't exactly inherit chopped liver when he took over for Dave Odom last April. Downey was first-team SEC and Fredrick, a steady hand in the backcourt. Promising freshmen from a year ago like forwards Mike Holmes and Sam Muldrow were more polished, while 6-7 forward Dominique Archie is versatile and talented.
Archie had one of the Vanderbilt game's most electrifying moments when he blocked Jeffrey Taylor's try for a layup, which would've regained the lead for the Commodores, and kept up South Carolina's momentum.
Still, entering the season they were a group accustomed to blowouts and close-but-no-cigar finishes. So Horn teaches them how to succeed, step by step.
Horn says the next level for his club is winning an SEC game on the road. How to do that? "I don't know, I wish I had the answer to that, to be honest," he said. "We've just got put ourselves in position to win the game. That's not something we've not done in our two road games."
Archie thinks South Carolina's time is coming, something they're showing with their SEC win streak.
"It just shows the growth of the program and how important the commitment level is," he said. "We worked really hard in the summer and it's really paying off."