ATHENS — A runaway win over Georgia helped South Carolina’s players believe in themselves again.
The Gamecocks can only hope the NCAA tournament selection committee shares that belief.
Devan Downey scored 23 points and South Carolina protected its NCAA tournament hopes by pulling away in the second half to beat Georgia 68-51 on Saturday.
South Carolina (21-8, 10-6 Southeastern Conference) snapped a two-game losing streak.
“We wanted to come out and play hard,” said Evaldas Baniulis, who made three of the Gamecocks’ nine 3-pointers. “We needed to get back our confidence and this was a perfect game for that.”
South Carolina first-year coach Darrin Horn called the win “huge” for the team’s postseason hopes, including next week’s SEC tournament in Tampa.
“We knew all the implications and all the talk out there about that, but more important than that, we wanted to play well and we felt if we did that we’d give ourselves an opportunity to win the game and take that into the (SEC) tournament, knowing at least that we played like ourselves,” Horn said.
South Carolina, coming off an 86-70 home loss to Tennessee, focused on defense as both teams struggled at times on offense.
“I think the great news is we weren’t good offensively in the first half in terms of some shots not going down and maybe not getting as much movement as we would like but we didn’t let it affect us on the defensive end,” Horn said. “That’s why our team has been good and has won 10 games in the SEC.
“We had that attitude and then in the second half the offense started flowing a little more.”
Horn said Downey, the SEC’s third-leading scorer with his average of 20.1 points per game, led the defense.
“Downey just completely changed the game with the way he pressured the basketball,” Horn said.
Downey said he took responsibility for the team’s defensive lapses in the loss to Tennessee.
“(Horn) challenged me to bring that defensive intensity because you know what I’m going to give him on offense,” Downey said.
Downey said he has tried to keep his teammates from focusing on South Carolina’s NCAA tournament hopes.
“We can’t control it,” Downey said of the speculation the Gamecocks are a bubble team. “I tried to do a good job of telling the team to control what we can control. We cannot control whether we get in or not. The only thing we can control is how we come out every night and perform.”
Zam Frederick scored 15 points while making 4 of 5 3-point attempts. Frederick hit a 3-pointer which capped a 10-0 run for a 48-32 advantage midway through the second half. Baniulis had 11 points and Mike Holmes had 10 for the Gamecocks.
South Carolina also scored 10 straight points in the first half after Georgia held its last lead at 9-7.
Chris Barnes and Trey Thompkins each had 10 points for Georgia (12-19, 3-13). The Bulldogs completed their disappointing regular season under interim coach Pete Herrmann, who took over after Dennis Felton was fired on Jan. 29.
Georgia trailed only 27-23 at halftime despite making only 25 percent of its shots from the field. Terrance Woodbury, who scored 30 points in the Bulldogs’ win at Kentucky on Wednesday, made only 2 of 12 shots for 4 points in the half and finished with 9 points on 4-for-21 shooting in his final home game.
“(Woodbury) has been an important asset to this team for four years,” Herrmann said. “He played great against Kentucky, but he had a tough game today. I told him to just relax because he was so pumped up, and he missed shots that he normally makes.”
South Carolina made 9 of 16 3-point attempts. Georgia made only 4 of 22 3-point attempts and shot only 27.3 percent overall (18 of 66).
“We just couldn’t make our shots, plain and simple,” Herrmann said. “... I told the guys that we had a chance if we could get to within seven points, but we just couldn’t make a run.”