Downey leading Gamecocks on and off the court
Kelley was not only the best player on the team last year, but the unquestioned leader of the squad. Replacing his leadership was almost as crucial as replacing his stats, and that responsibility fell on Downey's slight shoulders. The early returns show that Downey is more than ready to handle both of those challenges.
In his first game, Downey tied his career high with 24 points. In his second game, he set a career high for rebounds (9) and steals (6), and tied his career high in assists (11) while still scoring 11 points. On top of that, he has committed just 3 turnovers in the two games. And Downey, who will never lack for confidence, is convinced it should only be 2 turnovers. He was called for carrying the ball against S.C. State, but he complained, "I might have carried, but it was so quick there's no way [the referee had] seen it."
All the stats are nice, but besides the turnovers, the only one he cares about is wins.
"During the game it would be so selfish for me to just think about individual stats," said Downey. "Individual goals, those are good, but I came here to win, and I'm going to do whatever it takes for my ballclub to win. I don't care about my stats or how many points I get. At the end of the night, if the Gamecocks win and I have 2 points, I'm happy."
The Chester native spent a year at Cincinnati before transferring back to his home state. He watched last year's disappointing season from the bench while he sat out the year according to NCAA rules. He estimated that 200 friends and family were in attendance for the season opener to see his Palmetto State return. They saw a player who leads the team on the court, but what they did not see was a player who leads the team in the locker room. Following the win, when the Gamecocks were feeling good about themselves, Downey brought them back down.
"I was in there telling guys, this win was good, but let's move ahead," Downey said. "It ain't a sprint, it's a marathon. We came out of the gates running, and from here to March we're going to try to keep it up. I told the guys don't get a big head. Everybody's going to tell us how good we played, and we've just got to keep a level head and just keep on working."
On the court, Downey can be heard yelling out encouragement to players all game. He is a coach on the court, and he ranks next to Cocky as the team's biggest cheerleader. After freshman Sam Muldrow made an emphatic open court block, Downey raced to the other end of the court and pounded on Muldrow's chest so hard in celebration that there was concern Muldrow might suffer bruised ribs.
Carolina's next game is Saturday against the other USC, whom they beat in Los Angeles last season. The game against the Trojans marks a departure from Carolina's normal early season schedule, which consists mainly of smaller Division I teams. Of course, in this season where Gardner-Webb can blow out Kentucky at Rupp Arena, the line between the haves and have-nots is not quite as wide. On top of that, Downey knows the Gamecocks are lucky to be considered a "have."
"I just tell the team, we can't let that happen to us," he said. "If it happens to us, it's going to be a big thing. If other teams lose to little teams, [they say] ‘Well, they didn't come to play,' and people leave it alone, but if we lose the only thing people are going to say [is] ‘I told you so.'"
Southern Cal brings in a superstar point guard of its own, freshman O.J. Mayo. Mayo and Downey are unlikely to matchup against each other due to the 6'4" Mayo's 7 inch height advantage. Still, the buildup to the game will focus on the battle of the point guards. However, Downey is having nothing to do with the hype.
"We're not really thinking about just one player," he said. "We know Southern Cal is a good team, so we're not going to come in here Saturday and just think about one player. We've got a hard task, and like I told the fellows, we're going to come in and play hard and just be us, and everything else will take care of itself. If we can get it, it would be a signature win to let people know, you might have picked us sixth, but it's another thing. I'm so ready for this team to get a win and earn some respect."
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