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Balkman scores 23 to give Gamecocks chance to defend NIT title

NEW YORK (AP) -- South Carolina found its game right where it
left it last year.

Renaldo Balkman scored 23 points and the Gamecocks earned a
chance to defend their NIT championship with a 78-63 win over
Louisville in the semifinals Tuesday night.

"It feels good," said Brandon Wallace, who had a career-high
19 points. "This is what we planned to do when we came up here,
just handling business."

The Gamecocks, who beat Saint Joseph's in the final last year,
can become the second team to win consecutive NIT crowns with a win
over Michigan on Thursday night. The Wolverines beat Old Dominion
66-43 in the other semifinal Tuesday night.

Tarence Kinsey added 21 points for the Gamecocks (22-15), who
shot 60 percent from the field.

"We played the best basketball we've played in a long time,"
Balkman said.

Trailing 42-32 at halftime, Louisville (21-13) got within 48-41
early in the second half as freshman Terrence Williams scored seven
straight points, but South Carolina answered with a 10-1 run to
take a 58-42 lead with 11:35 to play. Balkman and Wallace had
acrobatic dunks during the spurt.

The Gamecocks didn't seem bothered by Louisville's pressure,
turning the ball over only seven times.

"Three games going now we've turned it over a total of 22
times," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "As much as anything
other than the wins themselves I'm very proud of that."

Odom was impressed with the play of his point guard Tre' Kelly,
who had 10 assists.

"I don't know that I've seen him play a better floor game than
he played tonight," Odom said.

Trailing by 16, Louisville scored the next eight points to close
the gap to 58-50, but Balkman scored six straight to put the game
away.

"South Carolina is a terrific team," Louisville coach Rick
Pitino said. "They are playing great basketball right now."

Taquan Dean scored 21 points for Louisville and finished 12th on
the school's all-time scoring list with 1,649 points.

"Taquan had a great four years for us," Pitino said of his
senior guard. "He epitomized everything you try and teach. Plays
hard all the time."

Williams added 16 for the Cardinals, who fell to 0-3 at Madison
Square Garden this season. The Cardinals lost to St. John's in the
regular season and Pittsburgh in the opening round of the Big East
tournament.

The Gamecocks, who advanced to the semifinals with a 65-62
victory at Cincinnati, closed out the first half with a 14-4 run.
With the game tied at 28, Balkman, who went 11-for-14 from the
field, started the run with a two-handed dunk and capped it with a
three-point play with 2.1 seconds left. He finished the first half
with 11 points.

"Balkman is tremendous," Pitino said. "His effort level is so
high and he's so long that he really bothered us."

St. John's is the only school to successfully defend its NIT
title, winning in 1943 and 1944.

This year's tournament was the first under the control of the
NCAA, which purchased the rights to the preseason and postseason
NITs in August as part of a settlement that ended a four-year legal
fight between the two parties.