Lost among the intense, need-to-win play of seniors Sam Muldrow and Johndre Jefferson on Sunday was the contribution of junior swingman Malik Cooke. He may have played the best game of his burgeoning South Carolina career.
Cooke was as aggressive to the basket early as the rest of the Gamecocks' bigs, swooping to the hoop for one-handed off-the-glass layups and pounding away at Clemson's trio of post players for rebounds. Although he was limited with early foul trouble, Cooke finished with 10 points, five rebounds and a season-high four steals.
He would have had more points, but missed a couple of point-blank looks at the hoop (set up by four offensive rebounds) and bricked all four of his free-throw attempts. Still, it was an impressive outing for a guy who has had up-and-down performances in his seven games at USC.
The Gamecocks got locked into nearly a six-minute scoreless stretch in their 64-60 win over Clemson, where Cooke cleaned the glass and went right back up, but had the ball bounce off the rim. It spread to everyone, leading to a short-lived 45-all tie, before Lakeem Jackson put back a miss to give the Gamecocks a lead they wouldn't lose.
"I know Malik Cooke missed two in the second half where if you gave them to him 100 times, he probably makes 99 of them," coach Darrin Horn said. "Just didn't go in."
The Gamecocks' post game was as dominant as it has been all season, getting balls on the block early, spinning and rebounding for easy buckets. USC (6-1) sunk 11 of its first 13 field-goal attempts, keyed by the forceful rush to the basket, and leaped to a 13-4 lead before Clemson (5-3) regrouped.
An energetic performance that had the opponent playing catch-up instead of USC. Something that Horn wanted to see as it heads into an intriguing stretch.
The Gamecocks are off until Saturday, when they host Wofford, an NCAA tournament team a year ago that returns most everybody and has a one-game winning streak against USC. Then it's on the road to No. 2 Ohio State, before completing the road trip on Dec. 22 at Furman.
DEVAN? Freshman guard Bruce Ellington, with a team-high 14 points, scored his last four with a clutch 3-pointer and one of two free throws in the game's final two minutes. While Ellington isn't quite up to the overall status of last year's departed star, Devan Downey, after two games against Western Kentucky and Clemson, he's becoming USC's go-to guy.
"I always feel good when he has the basketball," Horn said. "He's a guy that wants and is capable of making big shots. The first ingredient of taking big shots late in the game is wanting it. Not whether you can make it or not, but whether you want it. Nobody wants it any more than he does."
Ellington deeply cut the Tigers with the 3-pointer, and made a later free throw to make it a two-possession game. He made a believer out of the opposite bench.
"He's very good," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. "He's really good and we knew that. That's just a player who's got a little something special. That turns programs."
Ellington has been a scorer since arriving, but his point guard skills have needed some work. He had six turnovers against Clemson to only two assists, although his season numbers are still in the black (31 assists, 26 TOs).
"Had the turnover against the press," Horn said. "Great to get it back, but cannot turn the basketball over in that situation, if you're an elite point guard. In terms of him making big shots and developing, he's done that in every close game we've had. He's just one of those guys. He's going to do that."
WHISTLE The Gamecocks broke the press and fed Ramon Galloway, who took off from the wing for an uncontested dunk. The jam ricocheted off the far iron and bounced out-of-bounds, which was embarrassing enough.
Then the officials called a technical foul on Galloway. His crime? Hanging on the rim.
"That he did a chin-up on the rim and nobody was around," Horn explained.
The rule states that if there is somebody below a player, it is acceptable to hang on the rim to avoid injury. But if there is nobody below, even if there is a risk of immediately letting go and flying out-of-bounds/landing on the back, a player will be teed up.
Clemson ended up getting two points on the technical free throws and two more on the next possession. Lasting damage? None.
STREAK OVER USC lost the rebounding total for the first time all season. The Tigers had 36 boards to the Gamecocks' 31.
STREAK ALIVE USC, besides going 7-1 against the Tigers in sports for the 2010-11 academic year, improved to 11-4 against Clemson in the calendar year. It's the first time since 1994 that the Gamecocks won in football, men's basketball, women's basketball and baseball in the same calendar year.