No. 19 South Carolina keeping guard up vs. LSU

South Carolina has climbed to No. 19 in the country and is tied with Kentucky for the SEC lead.

The Gamecocks (17-4, 7-1) visit free-falling LSU (9-11, 1-7) to conclude the first half of the SEC schedule on Wednesday night in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, La.

It’s an opportunity for South Carolina to move a step closer to what would be its first NCAA Tournament berth in coach Frank Martin’s five seasons.

“I didn’t talk to them about it when we were in dead-last. I’m not going to start talking about it when we’re … whatever our record is,” Martin told The State. “That mindset of being excited for who we are, we tried to create that even when our record was not very good. We didn’t throw in the towel when we lost some games and we were written off a couple of years ago. I’m hoping we don’t get engulfed by the opposite, either.”

The Gamecocks took care of business in a 63-53 road win against last-place Missouri on Saturday. Now they stay on the road to play a team that is just one game better than Missouri.

“It can all change with a couple losses,” South Carolina senior guard Sindarius Thornwell said. “You can go from first to fourth. One of those teams could have a good day. We just have to protect ourselves.”

The Gamecocks are better known for their defense than their 3-point shooting, but they have been long-range marksmen in their last two games.

They had almost as many 3-point field goals (nine) as two-point field goals (11) in the victory at Missouri. In their last game before that, they made 15 3-pointers in a 98-69 victory against Auburn.

Before those two games, they were averaging six 3-pointers per contest.

The ability to make 3-pointers could come in handy against the Tigers. LSU allowed Texas Tech to make 12 3-pointers, including 10 in the first half, in the Red Raiders’ 77-64 victory last Saturday in Lubbock, Texas.

Three days before that, Florida made a school-record 19 3-pointers in an easy 106-71 victory in Baton Rouge.

“When guys get open shots they’ve been good,” LSU coach Johnny Jones told Times-Picayune. “Teams have been efficient against us. We just have to keep playing as hard as we can to defend that area as well as take away driving lanes.”

Still the Gamecocks’ defense is their biggest strength on a consistent basis. The team ranks sixth nationally in scoring defense (60.8 points per game), fifth in field-goal defense (37.2 percent), first in 3-point defense (25.4 percent) and eighth in turnovers forced (17.05 per game), all of which lead the SEC.

LSU has lost seven consecutive games and nine of its last 10.

“We’re just keeping our heads up,” Tigers guard Antonio Blakeney told Times-Picayune. “We have some good-spirited guys and just never give up until it’s all over. We’re trying to do our best to turn this thing around.”

Blakeney might have had a turning point with a sore right ankle in LSU’s last game, scoring a team-high 23 points.