All offseason, the South Carolina coaching staff talked about how special the 2009 recruiting was, and it showed early in the 63-55 loss to Tennessee.
Downey is the undoubted leader of the Gamecocks with his SEC-leading 23 points a game, but South Carolina had to find a different approach with him going 1-for-8 in the first half from the floor and totaling just three points.
So they had to find a way to keep it close.
Enter a pair of freshmen — Lakeem Jackson and Ramon Galloway.
The duo combined for 11 of South Carolina's first 24 points in the first 15 minutes of the half — including a Galloway penetrate and dish that was capped off by a big-time move and score by Jackson.
Jackson scored six points on 3 of 5 shooting during the spurt, and Galloway dropped five going 2-of-4.
Though things didn't continue to go the Gamecocks' way — despite a 28-24 lead at half — the future looked promising for what South Carolina coach Darrin Horn and his staff are trying to do.
"Our priority is our young people," Horn said. "We're trying to build a program."
The freshmen know that they are Horn's first class that he's recruited to the school, so they are ready for the challenge.
"Basically whenever my name is called or my number is called, I mean that's what I have to do. I have to go out and play," Galloway said. "And coming into a SEC school, which is the top-notch, I had to take into consideration that there was going to be tough times and hard minutes that I was going to have to play, and whenever they call us just to go in and play hard."
Tough minutes is right, as Galloway tallied 29 minutes against the No. 20 team in the nation, and Jackson played 32.
"(The coaches) just said you've got to come in and do what you've got to do and work hard and the minutes are going to come. So that's what I tried to do," Jackson added. "Just come in, work hard and learn from the older guys so I can possibly get more minutes in."
Jackson finished the game with 10 points on 5 of 9 shooting and Galloway would not score again after his hot start.
But the loss won't keep the team down as they know success won't come over night and that it's a process.
"(At) the college level, freshman are going to have to come in and compete, play hard," said Stephen Spinella, the third freshman that came in with Galloway and Jackson. "That's what I was told coming in — just play hard, know my role, and just compete, and that got me out on the floor."
But what got the guys to South Carolina to be a part of this "special" class?
"I had a coach at every one of my tournaments. No matter where it was, I had one of the assistant coaches or coach Horn was there, so they've been supporting me," said Jackson, who had been recruited by Horn since he was at Western Kentucky before taking over as the head man for the Gamecocks. "So that's one of the main things I took in when I was choosing my school."
"To me, it was very comfortable. It felt like a family, like a second home," Galloway added. "I wasn't really going out of my comfort zone because (all of the coaches), I felt close to those guys. So the recruiting class coming in, they're going to do a good job recruiting them, and they're going to spend time with them."
Comfort level is clearly a key, as every player signed in the 2010 class (in November) used the word "comfort" to describe their choice, so it wouldn't seem right for it to be any different for the '09 class.
"They made me feel really comfortable before I actually committed here, even now we still stick together as a family — the coaches, the players," said Spinella who tallied just seven minutes in the loss. "So that was the main key, the coaches making us feel comfortable even before we committed."
Despite some early key losses to South Carolina in starters Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes, the belief is still there.
"Whatever they told us when they recruit, whatever they told me, it came true," Jackson said. "They said you can do big things, change the program around, come in and work hard and it's going to pay off, and that's pretty much what happened."
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