Horn's Homecoming Leaves UK on Ice, 78-77

Darrin Horn grew up in the shadow of legendary Rupp Arena. On Saturday his team made sure his first trip there as a coach was a memorable one, giving him an unforgettable road win over the NCAA's all-time winningest program. The gutsy Gamecocks went into operation and stuck a big blue knife into Kentucky's heart when Devan Downey hit a heart-stopping game-winner with 3.2 seconds left to win 78-77.

On the long trip from Columbia, South Carolina to Lexington, Kentucky, the closer one got to Lexington, the more ice and snow covered the landscape. When the Kentucky faithful left their beloved Rupp Arena Saturday afternoon, their hearts were as cold as the weather outside, as the Wildcats had dropped a heartbreaker to the Gamecocks.

South Carolina came into the game with one win in Rupp Arena in their history, winning in 1997, the year they also won the SEC championship under former Coach Eddie Fogler. They left with their heads held high after the second win, leaving an ice-covered Lexington with a four game SEC winning streak and a 5-2 conference record and a 16-4 overall record.

The loss was No. 24 Kentucky's second straight after starting conference play with five straight wins, leaving them tied for second with the Gamecocks in the SEC East with a 5-2 record.

The Gamecocks travel to Gainesville, Florida on Tuesday to take on the SEC East-leading Gators. Florida plays Tennessee at 9 pm Saturday night, and should the Volunteers win and drop the Gators to 5-2 in the conference, USC would take the lead in the East, having beaten both teams with whom they are tied.

Kentucky head coach Billy Gillispie questioned his team's toughness after the loss. "We are just not playing very tough," he said. There was no questioning the Gamecock' toughness in the win. Asked after the game if he was tired, Devan Downey replied, "I don't really think we were that tired. In a close game like this, with three to four minutes left, you have to suck it up. You can't get tired."

South Carolina's leading scorer on the night was Zam Fredrick with 24 points. He echoed his teammate's comments, saying, "We went through grueling offseason workouts this year. I know that if I'm tired and winded then the guy next to me is tired and winded. When you see Kentucky tired then you have to let your teammates know so that you can stay competitive and hopefully wear them down."

And wear them down they did, putting up 28 more shots than the bigger Wildcats, and making the most of second chance points again and again as they made 18 offensive rebounds, outworking the long and lanky Cats and making them pay for it. Downey started the game quietly, failing to score until the final 2 minutes of the first half.

In the second half, it seemed nothing the Wildcats threw at him could stop him, and his turnaround jumper with 3 seconds left that won the game capped a 19 point second half effort by the junior guard. Gillispie said of Downey, "We had no answer and had nobody who wanted any part of him. He is a really good player and played great today. Their guys followed instructions the way they were supposed to and that is why they played tougher and smarter than us and that is why they won. I thought he got going no matter who was on him in the second half and late in the first half."

Jodie Meeks came into the game as the SEC's leading scorer, but two quick fouls put him on the bench for much of the first half, and USC was happy with his being limited to two points in the first half, both from the free throw line. Like Downey, Meeks went off in the second half and scored 18 second half points, but his desperation heave from just in front of the half court line bounced off the rim as time expired, and the Downey-Meeks match went to the diminutive guard from Carolina with the two ton heart.

Kentucky made it exciting down the stretch, bringing the Wildcat crowd of 24,332 to their feet when they scored on four straight possessions with emphatic dunks. Downey answered two of those baskets with 3-pointers and never allowing Kentucky to pad its lead. Gillispie referenced those shots, saying, "He is a very difficult guy to guard especially when he is making the 3-point shot."

Trailing 77-76 with 30 seconds left, the Gamecocks fouled Perry Stevenson to stop the clock. For the second big SEC game this season, the opponent choked at the free throw line with the game on the line, as Stevenson missed both foul shots to set up Downey's late heroics. Kentucky was a two-man show, with Patrick Patterson scoring 28 points to complement Meeks, but the USC defense kept the Wildcat offense in check just enough to steal away the win.

One of the things the Wildcat crowd complained about as they filed out of the arena was a technical foul that was called on Kentucky's bench for complaining at officials when Stevenson was called for fouling Mike Holmes.

After the Wildcats freshman DeAndre Liggins finished the half by beating the buzzer with a closely guarded 3 that put the Wildcats up 37-36, Kentucky opened up the second half on fire, stretching the lead to 10 in the second half. Downey took over at that point, fueling a 13 point Gamecock run.

Too many times Gamecock fans have seen their team play close in big games, only to see the ball bounce in the other team's direction at a crucial moment, leaving the garnet and black faithful to exit after a heart breaking loss. Kentucky's Perry Stevenson dropped his head as he said, "It seems like the ball was bouncing in their direction."

The Gamecock players afterward insisted that this team under Darrin Horn is making their own breaks. "We always tell each other that we paid a price to be good," Downey said. "Practicing with five, nine, and eleven players with no substitutions and dealing with the press will make a man out of you. Our practices are so intense and we do situations like this all the time, so we are used to these situations."

So far, this team is exceeding expectations under their first year coach. They've paid a price to do it, and the Gamecock nation is grateful.

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