COLUMBIA -- The shot drifted to the rim, bouncing once, twice, before finally whispering through. The Colonial Center crowd released two hours of pent-up twisted emotions with one collective roar.
Just like that, South Carolina had a new lease on a season that seemed to be slipping away.
Chester native Devan Downey converted a three-point play with two seconds left against College of Charleston, lifting a soft rim-rolling jumper over the Cougars' Jermaine Johnson and Dustin Scott, getting fouled and swishing the ensuing free throw. The shots brought the Gamecocks storming back from a 15-point deficit for an 85-82 win after they'd spent most of the game completely stymied by the Cougars' zone defense and 3-point shooting.
Lose, and a "For Sale" sign might have appeared in Dave Odom's front yard.
But USC didn't, and for the first time in a while, hit a game-winning shot instead of allowing one.
"A few times, early in the season, we had an opportunity at a last-second shot and I think I was very passive," Downey shrugged. "So this time I decided to be aggressive and whatever happened, happened."
Just three days after a debilitating loss to Baylor, one where USC led by 20 early, trailed by 15 late and couldn't complete a rally, the Gamecocks (6-5) erased Charleston's upset bid with eight minutes of frantic basketball. Odom spoke of the distress in the locker room after the Baylor loss, saying it beat anything he'd seen before.
"They were crying in their spilled milk," he said. "It was awful. It really was."
But with the CofC win fresh in their minds and a new-found confidence, the Gamecocks snuffed the sour memory and prepared for their next three games. Beginning tonight against UC-Irvine, who beat USC in Irvine, Calif., last year, the Gamecocks will try to take advantage of the home court before a treacherous trip to Vanderbilt on Jan. 9 for the beginning of SEC play.
"We know we're a good team, so we just got to beat good teams," said Zam Fredrick, who led the charge against Charleston with five 3-pointers in the game's final eight minutes. "Forty minutes of basketball at this level is what it takes to win games. If we'd have just played 15 minutes against Baylor, we'd have won that one."
The Gamecocks have to find a way around a zone defense, a bugaboo that's exploited their weaknesses in each of the past two games. They also have to remember that as thrilling as the Charleston win was, it can still be looked at as USC had to rely on a last-second shot to win over a 4-6 team.
"But that's the kind of game we need to win," protested Chad Gray. "We came together, finally."
The team is hoping the confidence carried through the Christmas break, Odom confirming it did if practice was any indication. Fredrick, buoyed by the advice of his father after a heart-to-heart before the Charleston game, said he felt good about USC's chances, as long as Downey kept his distance.
Against Charleston, after Fredrick drilled the last of his 3-pointers, Downey was celebrating and pushed Fredrick a bit too hard. Fredrick hit the deck.
"I'm over there excited and animated and looking the other way and I'm getting pushed from behind straight to the floor," Fredrick said, casting pointed glances over at his backcourt mate. "It wasn't a trip or nothing. I'll just make sure if we go on a run, I'll look for Devan."
"I kind of pushed him a little hard," Downey admitted with an identical smile, "but he's a tough guy, he's a big dude, he can take it."