NASHVILLE, Tenn. | In some quarters, there was outward frustration. In others, it was quiet disbelief.
South Carolina had come here knowing it would need an improbable run in the SEC tournament to reach the NCAA tournament. And for 30 minutes Thursday, the Gamecocks played like a team on the way to doing something good.
Then it unraveled, in a way that was a fitting end to a disappointing season.
The Gamecocks blew an 18-point lead in the final 11 minutes, and were stunned 68-63 by Alabama in the first round of the SEC tournament.
Devan Downey, whose college career almost certainly ended in ignominious fashion, tried to explain it.
"We played to hang on," Downey said. "We didn't play to extend the lead and keep the intensity. We just played to hang on."
"Playing to hang on" was the theme of the postgame comments, from Downey to coach Darrin Horn and others. Senior guard Brandis Raley-Ross, who went scoreless in his final game, summed up his performance with a profanity. Freshman guard Ramon Galloway - who hit the team's only field goal in the final 11 minutes - summed up the effort.
"The intensity wasn't there," Galloway said. "That sense of urgency that we had the first half and the beginning of the second half wasn't there."
It was, in all probability, the end of the season. The only way that changes is if the NIT accepts a sub-.500 team for the first time, or USC (15-16) changes its mind about playing in either the College Basketball Invitational or College Insider.com tournament.
It was also probably the end of Downey's standout career. And the final few minutes were far from fitting: He airballed a couple floaters, and with a chance to tie the game with 18 seconds left, the 85-percent free throw shooter made one.
Alabama (17-14) advanced to face top-seeded Kentucky, whose players left the arena before Alabama started its comeback.
The Gamecocks led 54-36 with 11:39 to go after Lakeem Jackson made a layup. Jackson, center Sam Muldrow and forward Johndre Jefferson had put on a great performance, as USC kept attacking the basket and scoring inside.
Normally reliant on 3-point shooting, USC was holding its own on the glass after being dominated in a home-court loss to Alabama last week.
But down the stretch, the Gamecocks were tentative on offense, allowing Alabama's pressure to force turnovers and bad shots.
"Their shots were coming up short, and that's when I knew we had them," Alabama forward Mikhail Torrance said.
The Crimson Tide made it a one-point game with 2:32 remaining. Horn called timeout, but the Gamecocks could not inbound the ball and were called for a five-second violation. Tony Mitchell's layup a few seconds later gave Alabama the lead.
"We didn't have anybody step up and play with the kind of confidence on either end," Horn said. "When it happened on the offensive end, it started happening on the defensive end too."
Still, it was tied with a minute left after Galloway's 3. But the Gamecock defense was a sieve, and Torrance eased through to make a runner with 55.3 seconds left.
Downey missed a runner, but forced a steal on the other end and was fouled. He missed the first of two free throws with 18.3 seconds to go, and the Gamecock misplays continued from there.
Alabama's JaMychal Green got open downcourt for a layup with 9.5 seconds left. Down three and without a timeout, Muldrow's pass up court was easily picked off by Mitchell, who was fouled and sealed the game with two free throws.
In the hallway after the game, Downey was consoled by Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy, who coached Downey his freshman year at Cincinnati. Elsewhere, Horn passed Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, on his way to the floor for his game. Neither said a word, as Pearl sighed and gave Horn a pat on the arm.
"We tried to hold on, instead of continuing to play basketball, you know breaking the press, breaking the trap and looking to score," Downey said. "We were holding, holding and holding the ball out. We ran into shot-clock problems. So you know it was us."