Darrin Horn could feel that Wednesday night was going to be something special for the Gamecocks.
With six minutes remaining, Malik Cooke hit a short jumper to give South Carolina a 50-48 lead over Alabama and USC’s fourth-year coach turned to fans at Colonial Life Arena and flexed his arms to implore them to stand up.
The crowd of 7,807. the smallest ever to attend an SEC game at Colonial Life Arena, was on edge as the teams traded baskets until the final second.
Alabama could not take advantage of a missed Anthony Gill jumper and turned over the ball to set up Bruce Ellington’s game-winning running bank layup with 1.3 seconds remaining.
Alabama forward JaMychal Green’s turnaround jumper sailed wide right as time expired to give the Gamecocks (9-10, 1-4) a much needed 56-54 victory after losing their first four conference games each by double digits.
“This team is playing its guts out,” Horn said. “I know we haven’t been real good. I think we all felt the sense of urgency with this one. We needed find a way to get one. I don’t know that it was pretty.”
Even before tipoff, USC President Harris Pastides said from his seat at Colonial Life Arena that he believed the Gamecocks basketball team can be successful.
“This season is not lost,” he said. “We have time to come back.”
He was right on Wednesday night.
USC led for good stretches of the first half as its defense frustrated the Tide into nine turnovers. But the Gamecocks’ poor shooting – 28 percent from the field and 19 percent from three-points – left them a two-point halftime deficit.
But unlike the previous two games when South Carolina lost halftime leads with poor starts to the second half, the Gamecocks began with a 9-4 run to open a three-point lead with 17:20 left.
Horn said over the last two days of practice he tried something new to prevent a lull at the start of the second half.
“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “We literally practiced for a while, went into the locker room, talked for a few minutes and came back out and played. I don’t know if that helped or not, but it was good us play better.”
USC would take a four-point lead with nine minutes remaining, but neither team would lead by more than two points the rest of the way. The teams jostled to control of the game, but their stingy defenses made scoring chances scarce. USC shot 5-for-31 from three-point range.
But the Gamecocks took care of the ball (nine turnovers) and were disciplined (10 fouls). They also were able to get offensive rebounds, including one by freshman Anthony Gill who tipped in an Ellington missed jumper with 1:26 left to give USC a 54-52 lead. Alabama guard Levi Randolph responded with a layup to tie the game.
The Tide had two fouls to give and used them both on Ellington with 5.4 seconds left.
Malik Cooke, who led USC with 18 points, sent an inbounds pass to Ellington at the top of key and he drove past two Alabama players before floating a layup off the backboard for the score.
Ellington, who finished with 12 points, said he went to the basket when a defender pressured him and he knew he could motor past him. He ran down the court and lept in the air after hitting the basket.
“You feel better when the ball is in his hands,” Horn said of last year’s leading scorer.
The game was emotional for a program seeking to improve after losing to a pair of mid-majors in non-conference play and trying to avoid losing first five SEC games for the first time in 13 years.
Some fans are upset with the direction of the program, which has two consecutive losing seasons after Horn won 21 games in his debut. Attendance at Colonial Life Arena is down nearly 1,900 fans a game so far this season compared to the average for all of 2010-11.
One thing can change that, Pastides said.
“As we have seen with the women’s team, winning can quickly bring back the fan base,” he said.
The men’s team will try to build on that.
“I think our guys, through all of this, have continued to compete and played really hard and given good effort,” Horn said. “I think this is a team that’s very likeable and hopefully people will get behind because it makes a difference. It makes a difference when they’re people here. It makes a difference when they’re into the game. I thought they were a huge force down the stretch.”
Green 2-4 2-2 6, Mitchell 5-12 0-0 11, Jacobs 4-6 2-3 10, Lacey 1-6 2-2 5, Releford 1-5 0-0 2, Eblen 0-0 0-0 0, Gueye 1-4 0-0 2, Randolph 5-8 0-2 12, Cooper 0-1 0-0 0, Steele 2-3 2-3 6. Totals 21-49 8-12 54.
SOUTH CAROLINA (9-10)
Gill 1-8 0-0 2, Cooke 6-11 5-5 18, Harris 5-11 2-3 12, Ellington 5-14 0-0 12, Leonard 2-11 0-0 6, Williams 0-5 0-0 0, Jackson 1-2 0-1 2, Slawson 2-6 0-0 4, Geathers 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-68 7-9 56.
Halftime: Alabama 29-27. 3-Point Goals_Alabama 4-18 (Randolph 2-5, Mitchell 1-4, Lacey 1-5, Steele 0-1, Cooper 0-1, Releford 0-2), South Carolina 5-31 (Ellington 2-7, Leonard 2-10, Cooke 1-4, Gill 0-3, Slawson 0-3, Williams 0-4). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: Alabama 39 (Mitchell, Steele 8), South Carolina 37 (Gill, Slawson 9). Assists: Alabama 11 (Lacey, Releford 3), South Carolina 8 (Gill 3). Total Fouls: Alabama 14, South Carolina 10. Attendance: 7,807.