After knocking off No. 6 Kentucky last Tuesday and defeating Missouri over the weekend, the University of South Carolina men’s basketball team – off to its hottest start in years – figured to be ranked among the nation’s elite programs this week.
They weren’t …
How did they respond to these snubs? Easy: By claiming their biggest victory of the season – and their first road victory over a top five opponent since 1997. South Carolina’s 63-59 win over No. 5 Tennessee in Knoxville was paced by graduate guard Ta’Lon Cooper – who led the team with eighteen points and drilled a clutch three-pointer with just forty seconds on the clock to help clinch the upset in front of a hostile crowd of more than 20,000.
Tuesday night’s Gamecock win marked only the second time this season an unranked team defeated a top five opponent at home – although seems unlikely the term “unranked” will apply to the Gamecocks (18-3, 6-2 SEC) for much longer.
“Our group just battled,” said head coach Lamont Paris, who continues silencing his critics after he was basically hired as a fallback plan by athletics director Ray Tanner in March of 2022. Paris’ first team went 11-21 (4-14 SEC) a year ago – and his second team was picked to finish dead last in the conference after losing its top player, GG Jackson, to the NBA draft.
Astonishingly, the Gamecocks are now on the cusp of the national rankings as they continue building an impressive NCAA tournament resume. And Paris? He is (rightfully) receiving major buzz for coach of the year honors as he seeks to lead this program to the Big Dance for the first time since 2017 – when it reached the Final Four.
The key to South Carolina’s success? A stultifying defense. Through 20 games, South Carolina was giving up just 64.4 points per contest – ranking the program No. 1 in the SEC and No. 27 nationally (out of 351 programs). They improved on that against the Volunteers, holding head coach Rick Barnes’ team to a season-low 59 points as Tennessee sustained its first home loss of the 2023-2024 campaign.
But Paris has his squad firing on all cylinders – as a team – with four players now averaging in double figures on offense in addition to their aforementioned defensive prowess. The hottest hand of late has been Cooper – who has scored in double-figures in each of his last four games and gone 11-of-15 from behind the three-point arc over that stretch.
Hoping to keep it rolling, South Carolina will travel to Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Georgia this weekend (Saturday, February 3, 2024) to face Georgia (14-6, 4-3 SEC) – a team which defeated the Gamecocks on their home court two weeks ago. Tip off is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. EST with the SEC Network providing national television coverage.
If the Gamecocks defeat the Bulldogs, they would be assured of their first national ranking since week fifteen of the 2016-2017 season, when they were ranked No. 21.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bass guitarist and dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.
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