Other teams had used taller, long armed defenders to stop All SEC guard Devan Downey over the last few weeks, and LSU held him and shooting guard Zam Fredrick to a combined 4-12 from the field in the first half and 9-27 overall, 2-10 from behind the 3 point line. That left Odom with a decision.
Despite sophomore swingman Evka Baniulis being 1-6 from the field at one point, and a suspect defender, Odom did not replace him with senior defensive stopper and fellow 3 point shooter Dwayne Day in the second half. Odom said Baniulis has been shooting the ball well the last few weeks and Day has not, while a match up with LSU's freshman Alex Ferrar was workable on defense. It could have been Day's last collegiate game and he played just 13 minutes to Baniulis' 34 minutes, but in the end it led to a win.
"When you look at decisions like that, you do what's best for the team," said Odom. "Dwayne totally understood."
"We needed shots today," said Odom. "Last time we played them I think we scored 56 points" (a 62-56 loss February 27 in Columbia). "That's not enough to win an SEC game."
Baniulis took all 3 pointers from the field during the game and was 1-3 in the first half. Day had made two straight 3 pointers mid way through the first half. The Lithuania native Baniulis then missed his first three attempts from the field in the first three and one half minutes of the second half. He followed that with a foul and a turnover. Finally, instead of riding the bench and while playing alongside Day, Baniulis hit one from beyond the arc with 11:45 left to cut LSU's lead to 49-47. The momentum seemed to shift back USC's way.
"Once I missed those 3 point shots and coach did not take me out, I really believed that he had full confidence in me," said Baniulis. "That gave me confidence and lifted me up." Baniulis hit a three a minute and half later, and then a third in a row with 5:25 left for a 63-57 Carolina lead. He added two rebounds and an assist the rest of the way. Baniulis more than doubled his season free throw total (2) in the first half, being fouled on a 3 point attempt and hitting 2-3, and making 4-5 overall. He did not attempt a free throw in the second half. Baniulis finished with 16 points and tied for the team high scoring honors with freshman Mike Holmes, who had 8 of those in the first 5:06 of the first half and 8 in the second half.
Day finished with 6 points, but missed two free throws with :18 left and Carolina up by 3 points, to allow the Tigers one last opportunity. LSU's leading scorer Marcus Thornton missed a 3 point attempt, and Anthony Randolph grabbed the long rebound, but Zam Fredrick stripped it away and made one of two free throws with :03 left after being fouled. Thornton thought Randolph was fouled.
USC hounded Thornton throughout the game, stopping a streak over three straight games of over 30 points. Fredrick was the main defender on Thornton. "I Knew I had to keep contact with Marcus all game....make it difficult for him. Make him do things he didn't want to do," said Fredrick. "....you have to be able to counter things they do, attack him on the defensive end and make him do things that you can defend well."
USC used two different defenses to try to limit Thornton, a box and one and a 1-3-1. Guard Devon Downey said the philosophy was to make Thornton, averaging 33 points per game over the last three SEC regular season games, take low percentage shots. "I just think Zam did a great job making him throw the ball, and every time he scored, he earned it." Thornton was held to 6-14 shooting, 3-10 behind the arc, and finished with 17 points, while Anthony Randolph maneuvered inside for a team high 22 shots on 9-15 shooting.
LSU cut a 71-59 lead to 73-64 with 1:16 left, but it was in the final minute that Carolina looked like it might let this, like five other games it led in the last minute, become a disheartening defeat. Two free throws each by Farrar, then Thornton followed by Downey's 1-2 with :47 left opened the door. Chris Johnson scored on a short jumper off an offensive rebound, Day missed his two free throws, and then Fredrick stripped Randolph after he took the long rebound of the Thornton miss.
Neither Fredrick nor Downey could quite put into words why LSU was able to come back, or how Carolina was able to hold off the negative thoughts of "Oh no, not again," and win the game, but Baniulis was adamant there were no negative thoughts among the team. "We were 100 percent confident we were going to win the game. We let them come back, but we knew we were going to win the game."
Odom said against Tennessee the match ups don't favor using the same Carolina personnel, and USC may need a stopper more than a scorer. No matter. Odom will enjoy staying in the SEC Tournament at least one more day, not being daunted by facing Tennessee, "the overwhelming favorite" to win the tournament on Friday.
Odom will make sure to enjoy all the time until Friday's 1:00 p.m. start against the Vols, whom Eddie Fogler's 13-17 1999-2000 team upset in the second round when UT was ranked #8 . "I'm going to enjoy the heck out of (the wait). Hope I don't sleep tonight so I can stay awake and think about it, go back in there and wake up my wife and say, ‘Hey, let me tell you something.' I want 20 hours of no sleep. I'll probably get it."
Odom decided to stay with the shooter Baniulis instead of the defensive stopper Day in what could have been Day's last college game. Because Baniulis came through and the Gamecocks conquered the last minute jinx, Day, Odom, and the Gamecocks stay in Atlanta to play another game in their respective careers. Sleep and the end of both Day's and Odom's USC careers can wait, thanks to three Baniulis 3 pointers that dropped, and one shot that star shooter Marcus Thornton of LSU could not make.
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