Diminutive dynamo

The smallest player on the floor may have the biggest impact on the outcome when Tennessee and South Carolina collide for the SEC East lead Thursday night in Columbia.

Point guard Devan Downey stands only 5-feet-9 but he puts the Game in the Gamecocks with his brilliance as a passer, scorer and defender. The electrifying junior leads the SEC in steals (3.11 per game), ranks third in scoring (20.2 points per game) and third in assists (119). He's fifth among SEC players in minutes (32.7 per game), ninth in free-throw percentage (73.7) and 11th in field-goal percentage (44.7).

"He's unbelievably quick with the ball," Vol coach Bruce Pearl says. "You can't cover him one-on-one."

Although Downey is nearly unstoppable on the dribble-drive, he can pull up and hit the 3-pointer when the need arises.

"Downey can beat you from 2, from 3 and from free (throw line)," Pearl said. "He's obviously pretty good at spoon-feeding. He just does whatever he wants to do on the basketball court. You've got to stay between him and the basket if you can."

Tennessee did an outstanding job of this in the first half of the Jan. 17 meeting in Knoxville, limiting Downey to four points as the Vols rolled to a 43-28 intermission lead. Downey found his form during the break, however, guiding the Gamecocks to 51 second-half points – scoring 15 of them himself – in a rally that fell just short in an 82-79 loss.

"Last time was a tale of two halves," Pearl recalled. "We really dominated the first half, then the second half they really ratcheted up the press, got the ball to the rim in their offense. Certainly, we'll have to pay close attention to the things they did in the second half to turn that game around.

"We missed the front end of two 1-and-1s in the last minute, which opened the door for them, but they certainly outplayed us in the second half."

South Carolina outplays a lot of people in the second half. That's because Downey seems to shift into a higher gear at crunch time. If he isn't making the big basket, he's usually setting up the big basket for one of his fellow Gamecocks.

"They beat Kentucky on a last-possession shot, beat Arkansas in an overtime game, beat Alabama on a tip-in on the road," Pearl noted. "They've had a sensational season with great clutch plays.

"They've got some experienced guards who have been there for a couple of years, and it obviously shows."

That's true. Making Downey even more difficult to stop is the fact he has a talented backcourt mate in Zam Fredrick, a 6-foot senior who averages 15.5 points per game.

"Keeping Downey and Fredrick out of the lane," Pearl said, "is crucial."

And almost impossible.

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