COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) PJ Dozier watched the Kentucky-Florida game with South Carolina teammates in their dorm Saturday, understanding both the excitement and challenge ahead for the first-place Gamecocks.
Dozier's proud that 19th-ranked South Carolina (19-4, 9-1 Southeastern Conference) is alone atop the SEC. He also understands that the Gamecocks must continue playing with the same fervor and attention to detail or see it all vanish far more quickly than it arrived.
''It's tough climbing the ladder,'' said Dozier, a sophomore guard averaging 14.1 points a game. ''But it's real easy to fall off.''
With a month left in the season, South Carolina holds a slim one-game lead over No. 15 Kentucky and No. 17 Florida, both 8-2 in league play. The Gamecocks lost to Kentucky, 85-69, at Rupp Arena last month in the team's only meeting this season. South Carolina defeated the Gators, 57-53 with the teams scheduled for a potential SEC showdown in Gainesville, Florida on Feb. 21.
It's a heady spot for the Gamecocks, who figured to be too busy melding young players (nine of the 16 players who have played are in their first seasons) to challenge their first SEC crown in 20 years. But behind a senior corps of Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice and Justin McKie, South Carolina looks poised for strong stretch run.
''We can't be complacent,'' said Notice, who leads the Gamecocks with 47 3-pointers.
If South Carolina needed a reality check, it had to look no further than the latest rankings.
Florida zoomed from 24th to 17th with the win over Kentucky. The Gamecocks, who went 2-0 last week including their second win this season over Georgia, stayed locked at No. 19 like they were a week ago. Notice said the players aren't worried about what outsiders think.
''At the end of the day, the rankings don't define us,'' he said.
The wins, though, have fired up South Carolina fans eager to plug into the school's basketball roots. The late Frank McGuire built a basketball power in the late 1960s and early 1970s, featuring South Carolina program greats like John Roche, Alex English and Mike Dunleavy, reaching the NCAA Tournament four straight seasons from 1971-74.
South Carolina has only been the NCAAs four times since, losing its first game each time.
Gamecocks coach Frank Martin, in his fifth season, said he team got a taste of battling for the top last season, one that he hopes will serve it well in February and March this time around. South Carolina faced Kentucky a year ago with first-place in the SEC at stake.
The Gamecocks were beaten 89-6 2, the start a 3-5 finish that spoiled any shot at an SEC crown or the NCAA Tournament. Martin said his older leaders recall too well what went wrong and have worked to make sure it won't happen again.
''I like their demeanor. I like their commitment to one another,'' Martin said. ''I don't think the moment is too big for them.''
The moment continues Tuesday night with a home game against Alabama (13-9, 6-4). The Crimson Tide stopped South Carolina's 15-0 start to the season in 2015-16, something the Gamecocks haven't forgotten.
''Not that we need any extra motivation,'' Notice said.
Notice believes the most important thing for his team going forward is remaining level-headed, bringing the same strong ethic to each practice and film session as they do in games. That's why he was pleased with how they handled leaping into first place.
The Gamecocks held on for a 77-75, down to the wire win over Georgia on Saturday afternoon, then dispassionately viewed the Kentucky-Florida game without hoopla or joyous outbursts as things went the Gators' way.
''I don't think we allowed ourselves to celebrate,'' Dozier said. ''It was moreso a drive to continue to play well and continue to win the games we know we need to win.''
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