ATHENS — With Georgia down to seven scholarship players, Sundiata Gaines knows it’s his time to shine.
He hasn’t disappointed.
The senior guard had another big game Wednesday night, scoring 27 points to lead the Bulldogs to an 82-64 rout of South Carolina that snapped a five-game losing streak.
Gaines equaled the second-best performance of his career, getting 19 of those points before halftime while pushing Georgia (12-10, 3-6 Southeastern Conference) to a big lead.
His best showing? A 32-point effort in a loss to Florida four days earlier.
“Lately I’m feeling great about my whole game,” Gaines said. “I’ve been working on my 3-point shot. I’ve been working on my free throws. I feel relaxed and under control.”
Georgia won for the first time since an 82-69 victory over Arkansas on Jan. 19. The Gamecocks (12-11, 3-6) trailed 46-29 at the half and never challenged.
The Bulldogs won big despite a severe numbers crunch.
As if it wasn’t bad enough that two key players were kicked off the team, another quit and guard Billy Humphrey is serving a three-game suspension for an underage drinking arrest, freshman Chris Barnes was stricken with an infected eye.
Barnes sat on the bench in street clothes, his eye covered by dark sunglasses. Georgia had only eight players, one of them a walk-on.
Coach Dennis Felton, a big believer in man-to-man defense, was forced to use a zone the entire game. He also instructed Gaines to drive the lane every chance he got, even if it meant making a mistake every now and then.
“I haven’t talked to him about putting the team on his back, but I have talked to him about being more aggressive,” Felton said. “He can create opportunities for not only himself, but his teammates.”
This one was over by halftime. Georgia built a double-digit lead before the game was 5 minutes old and stretched the margin as high as 21 points in the opening period. The Gamecocks never got closer than 14 in the second half.
Gaines set the tone right away, hitting 4-of-5 from beyond the 3-point stripe in the first half.
“With the team we have now, I have to step up even more,” he said. “There’s really no better position than the one I’m in right now. I’m just trying my best to make everyone around me better.”
The Bulldogs, one of the worst-shooting teams in the SEC, made 16 of 28 (57 percent) in the opening period. Georgia dominated in all facets, outrebounding the Gamecocks 20-14, knocking down 8 of 9 at the foul line and hitting 6 of 9 from 3-point range.
“Obviously, we never got a handle on the game tonight,” said South Carolina coach Dave Odom, who’s retiring at the end of the season. “We knew we were in for a tough game when a team that typically has a tough time scoring is up by (nine) points by the first media timeout. It was very surprising. The Georgia team was hungry to win tonight, and it showed.”
Odom was certainly impressed with Gaines, calling him “the best guard in the conference.”
“He has taken over offensively,” the visiting coach said. “He has always been a great defender. He is definitely their team leader.”
Gaines had plenty of help. Freshman Jeremy Price had the first double-double of his career with 19 points and 12 rebounds. He was joined in the club by Dave Bliss, who had 12 points and 10 rebounds. Terrance Woodbury chipped in with 13 points.
“It feels good, real good,” Bliss said. “I don’t know if we were feeling the pressure, but we were definitely able to get rid of some frustration. We got back in the win column in a pretty impressive way.”
Devan Downey led the Gamecocks with 20 points, while Zam Fredrick added 15. But South Carolina was feeble on the boards, finishing with a staggering 43-21 deficit. Not one on the team had more than six rebounds, allowing Georgia to score 22 second-chance points.
“It was very disheartening for them to get two or three shots every time down,” Odom said.
South Carolina seemed to content to just launch up 3s, making only 4 of 18 in the opening period and 8 of 30 overall — accounting for nearly half of their shot selection.
The teams split their season series. South Carolina defeated the Bulldogs 62-56 on Jan. 30, the second of Georgia’s five straight losses.
The Bulldogs got even — and then some — in the rematch.
“We got beat in every position,” Odom said. “They were better coached. They played better. They were just the better team.”