COLUMBIA, S.C. — One of Frank Martin’s best coaching moments this season for South Carolina came away from the games or the practice court. He counseled his senior leader Chris Silva to forget about the team’s early problems and savor every minute he had left to play.
Silva has taken that advice and powered the Gamecocks’ surprising run through the Southeastern Conference.
Silva was nearly unstoppable, with career highs of 32 points and 14 rebounds, to lead South Carolina to an 80-77 victory over No. 16 Auburn on Tuesday night. He made 11 of 12 shots, 10 of 11 foul shots and had four of his team’s eight blocks. Silva’s relentless play underneath was also a factor in two of Auburn’s post players fouling out.
“Silva was the difference,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “We had nobody to guard him.”
It wasn’t that way through much of the pre-SEC schedule for South Carolina (10-8, 5-1), which lost to mid-majors Stony Brook and Wofford along with heavyweights Michigan and Virginia to enter league play 5-7 overall.
Silva, the 6-foot-9 forward who tested his NBA value last year as a junior, acknowledged the frustration of some of the early losses.
“Frank told me to enjoy the game and that’s what I’m doing right now, enjoying the game,” Silva said. “And when I enjoy the game, the emotions come out of me.”
Silva leaped high when the horn sounded, celebrating with teammates and cheering fans over the Gamecocks’ fifth victory in six league games.
Felipe Haase’s 3-pointer with 30.3 seconds left put South Carolina ahead for good, and Silva’s final two foul shots sealed the win.
The Tigers (13-5, 2-3) used a late 12-0 run to wipe out South Carolina’s 71-61 lead. They were still ahead 77-75 after Jared Harper’s two free throws with 56.3 to go. That’s when Haase nailed his long-range, go-ahead basket from the right corner.
Chuma Okeke missed a 3-pointer and Danjel Purifoy couldn’t connect on a driving basket on Auburn’s next possession before Silva came down with his 14th rebound and got fouled with 2.5 seconds to play.
Silva made both, and Auburn threw away the pass on its final possession to lose its second straight heartbreaker following an 82-80 loss to Kentucky last Saturday.
Pearl said games like the past two are just part of the SEC grind, and he’ll make sure his players don’t get too down on themselves.
“You’ve got to keep your locker room and you’ve got to fight through some adversity,” he said.
Auburn appeared to be finished after Hassani Gravett’s floater went in just as the shot clock expired for a 71-61 lead with 6:33 to go. But the explosive Tigers shot their way back in it, making five of their next six attempts in a two-minute span.
Okeke’s 3 from the left front put Auburn ahead 73-71 with 4:01 remaining, capping a 12-0 surge.
Brown and Harper scored 17 points each for Auburn.
THE BIG PICTURE
Auburn: The Tigers showed spurts of stellar play amid several long stretches of offensive struggles. They started the game going 4 of 14 from the field before their closing run. They fell behind 62-53, and then scored six points in four seconds to tighten things up.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have found their stride at the perfect time with Silva in charge. He has become the team’s most accomplished and capable scorer.
Auburn played without 6-foot-11 Austin Wiley, who has averaged 10.8 points and 6.1 rebounds this season, for a second straight game. The Tigers could’ve used his size and strength against South Carolina’s post players. Forwards Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore fouled out.
Martin had wondered at times earlier this year who would step up as leaders. And he was pleased that his team returned from its only SEC loss — last Saturday night at LSU — with a strong resolve to correct mistakes.
“That’s leadership,” Martin said.
Gravett had three 3-pointers and was South Carolina’s only other double-digit scorer with 13 points.
It was Silva’s 20th career game with double-figure points and rebounds.
Auburn plays at No. 22 Mississippi State on Saturday night.
South Carolina visits Oklahoma State in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday.