ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Sindarius Thornwell was especially proud of the steals that were part of his impressive return from a six-game suspension.
It’s the category which best reflected his status as the Southeastern Conference’s reigning defensive player of the year.
P.J. Dozier scored 24 points and Thornwell had 19, leading South Carolina to a 67-61 win over Georgia in the Gamecocks’ SEC opener on Wednesday night.
Thornwell had 11 rebounds, three blocks and six steals for South Carolina (11-3, 1-0 SEC).
“I like when I’ve got a lot of steals,” he said. “It just shows that I was in the right spots on defense. I had a good defensive night. You can’t control the ball going in. You can’t control a lot of things on the court, but one thing you control is your effort.”
Thornwell returned as a starter after completing the suspension for an unspecified violation of athletic department policy. He apologized to teammates and fans on Monday but would not say why he was suspended.
Yante Maten led Georgia (9-5, 1-1) with 18 points and 10 rebounds. He sank his only 3-pointer with about 1 minute remaining to cut South Carolina’s lead to 62-61.
Thornwell’s tip-in of his own miss pushed the lead back to three points. He then dove to come up with a loose ball on the other end of the floor.
“He makes such a big difference on the team,” Dozier said of Thornwell. “This game speaks for itself how much we missed him in all aspects of the game, rebounding, scoring, defending, everything. Just having him back was great for us.”
J.J. Frazier had 16 points for Georgia despite making only one of six 3-pointers.
The Gamecocks were 7-0 and ranked No. 20 with Thornwell, who was averaging 18.7 points. They were 3-3 and fell out of the Top 25 during the suspension.
Even while missing Thornwell’s defensive leadership for six games, South Carolina led the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 59.3 points per game. His return added more strength to the defense which swarmed Maten, the SEC’s second-leading scorer, near the basket and frustrated the Bulldogs’ outside shooters.
“All credit to their defense, they had us out of sorts for a little bit,” Maten said. “Not many teams play defense like that and are able to disrupt offensive flow.”
South Carolina opened the second half with a 12-5 run to take its biggest lead at 48-39. Georgia cut the lead to 51-49 on Juwan Parker’s 3-pointer and Frazier’s fast-break layup on consecutive possessions.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks outscored the Bulldogs 18-9 on points off turnovers and 13-7 on second-chance points. … Thornwell scored on the Gamecocks’ first possession and had six points in the first half. … Dozier made two jumpers in the final 40 seconds of the first half, including a 3-pointer that just beat the buzzer as time ran out, giving the Gamecocks a 36-34 lead. … Chris Silva had 13 points and three blocks.
Georgia: Maten became the 48th 1,000-point scorer in school history. He needed 10 points to reach 1,000. Frazier reached the milestone on Nov. 14. … Parker had 12 points while make each of his two 3-pointers. Overall, Georgia made only 4 of 13 3s.
Thornwell said Georgia ranks right behind Clemson on the Gamecocks’ list of rivals.
“It’s always a big game,” Thornwell said. “When we play Georgia, everything goes out the window. The records don’t mean anything. It’s always a tough game.”
Parker scored in double figures for the third straight game and fourth time this season. He only had one game in double figures before the season.
South Carolina: Hosts Texas A&M on Saturday.
Georgia: Hosts Missouri on Saturday.