Originally created 01/31/98

Gamecocks showing last year's SEC title was no fluke



COLUMBIA -- So South Carolina isn't perfect, who is these days?

But the 13th-ranked Gamecocks (15-3, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) are gradually showing that last year's SEC title was not just a fluke and a repeat this season -- with a couple of breaks down the stretch -- isn't out of the question.

Last year's team was dominated by its smooth-shooting guards. This year's club, instead, has flexed its muscles underneath the basket. On Wednesday night, South Carolina out rebounded Florida 47-27 and pushed the Gators around for a 74-72, come-from-behind victory.

Inside players LeRon Williams, Antonio Grant, William Gallman and Ryan Stack accounted for 43 points and 32 rebounds against Florida, production South Carolina hasn't seen in coach Eddie Fogler's five seasons.

"They've proven that BJ (McKie) and I don't have to carry the load the past four or five games," point guard Melvin Watson said. "They understand that we need them to win the SEC championship."

But Watson isn't ready to compare this team with last year's 15-1 champions -- yet.

"We play in spurts where we show signs of being a very good team, but we're still putting it together," Watson said.

The Gamecocks have won five straight and six of their past seven. They have won blowouts (81-51 over Tennessee) and close ones (74-72 over Florida); on the road (for the first time at Georgia and Auburn) and at home (a league-best 19 straight home victories).

South Carolina has even gotten big breaks. In its 71-70 over Vanderbilt Jan. 7, all Commodores guard Drew Maddux had to do was catch a long pass and dunk the ball in the final seconds. But the ball skidded through his hands and the Gamecocks held on for one they may not have deserved. Sort of like the team a year ago.

"As we play more games, you can see it coming," said Watson.

Williams, who transferred in from Florida two years ago, watched last year's run from the bench. He worked hard at practice, but when game was on the line in 1997, all he could do was cross his fingers.

He knew from fall practice that South Carolina's frontcourt would have to be more than a complement to its guards and that he'd be expected to make a difference immediately.

It took a couple of games, but Williams is finding his range. He's averaging 10 points this season, but almost 17 points in South Carolina's past four games.