TAMPA, Fla. — Devan Downey sat in the corner, not saying much, other than to lean over and mumble something to Dominique Archie. Their teammates sat silent.
They came here loose, almost anticipating a win on Friday. It would be the next step on the way to the NCAA tournament for this South Carolina team.
Instead, after one game, they sat sullenly in the locker room, wondering how it all unraveled.
In the span of a few minutes, South Carolina went from continuing a great season to a probable NIT berth. Despite controlling the game for a half, USC was beaten soundly by Mississippi State, 82-68, on Friday in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.
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Mississippi State advanced on to face LSU in the semifinals.
South Carolina headed home to face the consequences.
Archie was asked to describe the feeling.
“I think y’all can figure that out yourself,” Archie said. “We came in here expecting to win, and we lost.”
The Gamecocks (21-9) still retain hope their name will be called as an at-large selection when the field is announced Sunday night.
“We’ve proven that we’re definitely worthy of that,” coach Darrin Horn said of being selected. “But those decisions are beyond our control.”
Entering this weekend, the Gamecocks could point to a number of stirring victories as the reason they were in this position: at Baylor and Kentucky, home against Florida being the headliners.
But if they are passed over for the NCAAs, the Gamecocks can point to the second half against Mississippi State — especially a key late stretch — as the cause.
The Gamecocks led 55-52 with 8:10 left, but then the Bulldogs’ Barry Stewart hit consecutive 3s, igniting an 18-6 run.
South Carolina, which specializes in outside jumpers, did not hit one during the run. Mississippi State, which lives off its 3-pointers, hit a number of them.
“Our defensive intensity, it was just lacking in the second half,” USC guard Devan Downey said. “We didn’t do a good job of merging defense, talking, communicating. Everything we did in the first half, it just went out the window in the second half.”
USC led by as many in the 10 in the first half and by four at the break — just like in the team’s first matchup last month in Starkville.
But once again Mississippi State used its 3-point shooting to run past the Gamecocks. And this time they outrebounded USC 50-36. USC helped by shooting 5-for-22 on 3-pointers.
“It’s a new arena. You can always say Mississippi State played one game, they got used to the rims and we did not,” USC forward Evka Banilus said. “But I don’t know. We didn’t shoot the ball as much as we should probably at the end. We took quick shots.”
The blown lead was almost a mirror of South Carolina’s late season run: It was 9-4 in the league after a win against Kentucky but lost three of the next four, including Friday.
“We didn’t do the things we had to do down the stretch,” Archie said. “We didn’t get those wins. We lost the loose-ball battles, got out-rebounded. Shot selection, stuff like that.”
Archie talked hopefully of turning those deficiencies around.
“We’ve just got to learn from that and be ready to play,” Archie said, then stopping.
“If we play,” he added.
Postgame interviews: Horn, USC players
MISSISSIPPI ST. (21-12) | Varnado 6-14 0-1 12, R.Johnson 3-8 4-4 11, Bost 3-7 7-10 14, Stewart 6-11 5-6 21, Turner 3-5 1-2 7, Beckham 0-1 0-0 0, Osby 0-1 2-2 2, Gay 0-0 0-0 0, Benock 0-0 0-0 0, Luczak 0-0 0-0 0, Augustus 3-5 0-0 8, Bolen 0-0 0-0 0, B.Johnson 3-6 1-3 7. Totals 27-58 20-28 82.
SOUTH CAROLINA (21-9) | Archie 6-13 4-4 16, Muldrow 2-5 0-0 4, Holmes 4-12 0-3 8, Downey 5-20 0-0 11, Fredrick 7-15 3-4 20, Raley-Ross 2-5 0-0 5, Conrad 0-1 0-0 0, Wilder 0-0 0-0 0, Steed 0-1 2-2 2, Baniulis 1-4 0-0 2, Carter 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-76 9-13 68.
Halftime_South Carolina 36-32. 3-Point Goals_Mississippi St. 8-15 (Stewart 4-6, Augustus 2-3, Bost 1-2, R.Johnson 1-3, Turner 0-1), South Carolina 5-22 (Fredrick 3-7, Raley-Ross 1-3, Downey 1-7, Conrad 0-1, Baniulis 0-2, Archie 0-2). Fouled Out_Conrad. Rebounds_Mississippi St. 50 (Bost 10), South Carolina 36 (Holmes 9). Assists_Mississippi St. 12 (Bost, Varnado 3), South Carolina 10 (Fredrick 5). Total Fouls_Mississippi St. 15, South Carolina 22. A_NA.