UK Men's Basketball

South Carolina's Downey comfy in the clutch

As he's proving again this season, a little Devan Downey goes a long way. And the trip usually ends at the winner's circle.

In leading South Carolina to a 78-77 victory at Kentucky on Jan. 31, Downey won it with an eight-foot fadeaway over UK's top perimeter defender, Jodie Meeks, with 3.2 seconds left.

"I always want the ball in those situations," Downey said when asked about his knack for making clutch plays. "I feel I can make the play whether scoring myself or finding an open teammate."

How long has Downey wanted the ball with victory at stake?

"All my life," he said.

Downey, a 5-foot-9 junior, spoke about the work he's put in. The jump shots he's taken. The weights he's lifted. The sprints he's run.

"I've put so much work into being one of those guys in that moment," he said. "I feel it's always my moment."

Downey's work included the playground game of imagining the clock ticking down — five seconds, four, three ... — and you must take the shot to decide the game.

"One of the gyms I imagined doing it was Rupp (Arena)," Downey said, "because at the time it was all about UK basketball every time you turned on the TV."

Downey and his teammates have managed those clutch moments well this season as evidenced by four victories decided in the final 10 seconds. The Gamecocks won a fifth test of nerves on Saturday with an 82-78 overtime victory over Arkansas.

When asked how instrumental Downey was in leading South Carolina to these victories, Arkansas Coach John Pelphrey sounded taken aback by the question.

"Yes, no question about it," he blurted out. "In close games, players make plays whether on offense or defense. And Devan Downey makes plays. He's a playmaker on both sides of the ball."

Speed and quickness — going forward, backward, left and right — make Downey difficult to contain with the ball in his hands. "His straight-forward speed is good," Mississippi Coach Andy Kennedy said. "But his ability to change direction is as good as there is in college basketball."

Billy Gillispie, whose UK team plays at South Carolina on Wednesday, noted how Downey strikes at the heart of UK's defensive philosophy: Keep the opposition outside the lane.

"He messes all those concepts up," Gillispie said. " ... He's a master of getting in the paint."

Downey also can impact the game defensively. He set a Southeastern Conference record with 103 steals last season and leads the league again.

South Carolina's first-year coach, Darrin Horn, noted how Downey has become a more disciplined defender. "Last year he was a little more roaming around and stealing the ball because he could," Horn said.

Downey, a contender for SEC Player of the Year, grew up in Chester, S.C., a small town of a few thousand near the North Carolina border. There wasn't much to do for Downey besides play basketball.

"No malls, no fun parks for kids," he said. "I just chose to play basketball with my free time. Living in a place like that, you do have a lot of free time."

As recruiting coordinator for Bob Huggins, Kennedy recruited Downey to Cincinnati. It was an unlikely assignment. " 'Hugs' was never into small guards," Kennedy said. "The way we guarded with a physical presence, he never really liked a small guy on the ball."

Another 5-9 guard, Tim Smith of East Tennessee State, changed Huggins' mind. Smith's 26 points and all-court ball-hawking nearly beat Cincinnati in a 2004 NCAA Tournament first-round game.

"Afterward, 'Hugs' said find me one of those guys," Kennedy said.

Kennedy found Downey, who averaged 36.9 points and won South Carolina's Mr. Basketball Award as a senior. Although he also considered such schools as Texas, Maryland and South Carolina, Downey signed with UC because the school had success with small guards like Nick Van Exel and Kenny Satterfield.

"A lot of college coaches can say we're going to do this and that for you," Downey said. "At Cincinnati, they had proof."

Cincinnati forced out Huggins before Downey arrived, yet the player stuck with his commitment. He made the Big East All-Rookie team, averaging 12.3 points and 4.1 assists as a freshman playing for Kennedy, the interim coach.

When Cincinnati decided not to retain Kennedy, he and Downey looked for new schools.

Downey visited Kennedy at Ole Miss but decided to transfer to South Carolina. "I kind of wanted to go home and start something special in my home state," he said.

Mission accomplished as Downey, an All-SEC player last season, leads South Carolina toward its first NCAA Tournament birth since 2004.

"There's something about him," Kennedy said. "He's got 'it.' "

What Downey doesn't have is recognition. Discussions of top point guards generally do not include South Carolina's main man.

"Put Devan Downey in a Florida uniform or in a Kentucky uniform, and everyone in the country is talking about Devan Downey," former Gamecock Carey Rich told The State, the newspaper in Columbia.

Downey doesn't seem to mind. "I can't control some analyst saying I'm not a top point guard," he said. "What I can control is to go out and lead my team and do whatever it takes to win ball games."