Gamecocks deliver season-changing W

South Carolina was still dealing with Saturday's buzzer-beating loss at Florida when the Gamecocks were hit with another zinger late that night.

The players and staff, albeit separately, took note of the media's breakdown of when 19-0 Kentucky would lose its first game.

They knew Texas had gone down again, this time to Connecticut. They knew Kentucky had throttled Arkansas. They knew they were next for the Wildcats on Tuesday night at home.

Yet they felt that the Wildcats' trip to Columbia was omitted from any on-air discussion -- mostly at this network -- about when the Wildcats would lose next, with games against Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Mississippi State seen as the biggest threats.

"That's all we were talking about [Sunday]," said South Carolina point guard Devan Downey by phone late Tuesday night. "It was like everyone acted as if they didn't have a game Tuesday. I told the guys that we had to go out on the court and prove it again and play hard."

And don't think South Carolina coach Darrin Horn wasn't watching, as well.

"Whether anyone thought we could win or not, they didn't even mention the game," said South Carolina coach Darrin Horn by phone from Columbia. "We noticed. That's the point. No one expected us to win, but they didn't even mention it that the No. 1 team was going on the road in a tough place to play."

But let's be honest here. It's not like South Carolina needed extra motivation to play Kentucky, regardless of the ranking. Playing the Cats in any season, even last season's NIT team, is a big deal for South Carolina. There is an understanding in the SEC that playing Kentucky is a bigger game than most, save the Florida championship years in 2006 and '07.

"I grew up there and I understand the magnitude of the program and what it means for them to be really good," Horn said. "They're still probably the best team in the country, regardless of what happens."

To beat Kentucky, though, the Gamecocks had to be somewhat special Tuesday night. They desperately needed Downey to turn in one of those memorable performances, and he did just that with floaters, 3s and drives to the hoop for 30 points in the 68-62 win.

South Carolina has been one of the more maligned teams this season. A season that started out with so much promise was tempered when forward Dominique Archie went down with a knee injury and forward Mike Holmes was injured and later dismissed. The Gamecocks lost to Miami in the finals of the Charleston Classic in November. South Carolina then whiffed in most of its other significant games: at Clemson, at Boston College, at home against Baylor and even at Wofford. Sure, the Gamecocks beat Richmond at home, but that was the only decent nonconference win.

The SEC schedule didn't help, with games against a hot Vanderbilt team, at Ole Miss and at Florida following wins against SEC West cellar dwellers Auburn (road) and LSU (home).

"I knew we could get over the hump because of the last five halves of basketball we had played, and we were essentially in a position to win at Florida but [Chandler] Parsons made a terrific shot," Horn said. "What I saw [against Kentucky] was Devan being special and everyone else contributing."

The obvious thing to say is that South Carolina needed more help offensively for Downey. Sure, guard Brandis Raley-Ross helped with 17 points. But Downey said the defense had to improve for the Gamecocks to have a chance. Forward Sam Muldrow had five blocks. Austin Steed had one. Johndre Jefferson had one. The Gamecocks forced 15 turnovers and picked up seven steals. They limited Kentucky to 3-of-12 shooting on 3s and 38.6 percent shooting overall.

"We were scoring, like, 70-something points a game, so offense wasn't a problem for us," Downey said. "It was our defense. What happened was the coaches got us prepared. It's hard to ask someone to guard John Wall for 94 feet. You've got to stop his momentum. We knew the personnel. We bought into the defense."

Downey has consistently been the player no one truly believes in from afar. The senior can be knocked for being too small or not high-profile. Yet he was a potential star in the Big East if he had stayed at Cincinnati, and he has been nothing short of a savior for the Gamecocks since he transferred south when Dave Odom was the head coach.

"When I took the job I had no idea," Horn said of Downey's potential. "You can't appreciate that until you see it every day. We see it every day. I'm not surprised now. He has a terrific work ethic and spends extra time every day. You have no idea how consistent he is."

Downey averaged 11.9 points and 4.3 assists in 30.9 minutes a game as a freshman with the Bearcats in 2005-06. His scoring numbers have steadily climbed in his three seasons with the Gamecocks, from 18.4 to 19.8 to 21.9 this season. But the 5-foot-9 guard from Chester, S.C., who flirted with the NBA draft last year but knew better and came back, needed this moment for everyone to realize how valuable he is to his team. You can argue at this juncture that he might be as valuable a player to his team as anyone in the country. Take Downey off South Carolina now and the Gamecocks have no shot to stay afloat in the SEC, let alone win elite games.

"I'd have to say this is the best," Downey said of his career highlights. "We just beat the No. 1 team and people don't get that opportunity very often, to play a No. 1 or beat a No. 1 team."

So the Gamecocks have the signature win they desperately needed, the one that Horn said maybe no one else will get this season. But what happens next?

"The most important thing is it got us back to .500 in the conference [3-3]," Downey said. "I still think with our RPI [87, SOS is 42] that we can turn this thing around and make the NCAA tournament."

On Saturday, the Gamecocks play Georgia, which just crushed Tennessee. South Carolina still plays the Vols twice, faces Vanderbilt in Nashville, Kentucky in Lexington and hosts Mississippi State. There are opportunities for a 12-8 team to still make its mark.

"It's obvious that this win stands out, but we've got to be in position for it," said Horn. "We play Tennessee twice, Vandy again and Mississippi State, and those teams are probably already in the tournament. If we take care of business, then we'll get some of those and have one that nobody can take from you."

UCLA AD Dan Guerrero, the NCAA tournament selection committee chairman, said two weeks ago that a lot of teams looked alike and that the selection process would be difficult if there wasn't some separation in the coming weeks. South Carolina still has loads of work to do, but it did something Tuesday on national TV to draw attention to itself.

"That's the challenge," Horn said. "We've got to keep this going. We've got to follow the game plan. Devan has to be good, maybe not 30, but he has to bring us what he brought. We showed [Tuesday] that we're good enough to play with anybody, but we don't have much margin for error."

Kentucky should be fine and still projects as a No. 1 seed. If Kansas beats Kansas State on Saturday in Manhattan, the Jayhawks will be No. 1 in the polls Monday. Reached late Tuesday night, Kansas coach Bill Self said he's not "worried about rankings at all -- just want to get better and that takes care of itself." He also added that teams will lose at this time of the year and not much should be read into it.

He's right. Elite teams will fall in January or February, and when they do -- to teams like Kansas State or Connecticut or South Carolina -- the season might not necessarily change for the upset victim.

But it sure can save a season for the victor.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.