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Last week, as USC’s season seemed to crumble under the weight of winning only one conference game, coach Darrin Horn gave his team a mantra to shout to end their funk — “No more!”
The Gamecocks (10-15, 2-9) ended any chance of becoming the first team since the SEC expanded to 12 teams in 1991 to finish with only one league win by beating Georgia 57-56 on Wednesday in Columbia.
The sometimes sloppy game was decided by Malik Cooke’s short jumper off the glass with 20 seconds left and Damontre Harris’ long reach to block a shot with 16 second remaining and tip of an inbounds pass as time expired.
“Everybody’s frustrated,” Horn said. “I have never been in this situation where from the beginning of the season all the way through, it’s been a complete uphill battle and struggle. Tonight, we just didn’t compound some of our mistakes.”
USC ended a five-game losing streak during which the Gamecocks often were down by double digits. They have five games to avoid the school’s worst SEC record. South Carolina went 3-13 in 1992 and 1999.
Players are allowed to say “No more” whenever they feel like they need to, said Cooke, who led the team with 13 points.
“We’re just tired of losing,” he said. “And we want to be all-in for each other.”
The team’s mantra was appropriate against Georgia as the Bulldogs took 7-point leads in each half, but could not extend them. Harris’ 3-point play stopped the Georgia’s first burst with nine minutes to go in the first half.
That was followed by an 8-point burst by reserve guard Brenton Williams — two 3pointers and a fast-break basket on which he faded away from two defenders before letting go a short rainbow jumper — to give USC a halftime lead.
USC started the second half with three consecutive turnovers, but settled down before a spate of missed shots gave Georgia another 7-point lead.
Then Cooke kicked up his game. He scored all eight of his second-half points after the Bulldogs took their largest lead. The team’s only senior hit a jumper that was followed by a Bruce Ellington 3-pointer. Ellington later would weave to the basket to give USC the lead with 4½ minutes left.
Georgia used 3-pointers by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Gerald Robinson to gain a 1-point edge before Cooke’s drive through a narrow gap in the Georgia zone to score the basket that proved the game winner.
“I hated to see the ball in his hands,” said Georgia coach Mark Fox, who coached Cooke while the pair were at Nevada.
USC threw five different defenses at Georgia that keep the Gamecocks aggressive and the Bulldogs uncomfortable, Horn said. Georgia shot 35 percent — the lowest by an SEC opponent against the Gamecocks this season. USC had allowed 49 percent shooting in league play.
Crucial to South Carolina’s success was going 14-for-15 from the free-throw line, including hitting four in a row while coming back from the 7-point hole. But it was the only miss — the front end of a one-and-one by Ellington with 13 second left — that could have cost USC the game.
Caldwell-Pope rebounded the short free-throw attempt, and he missed a 3-pointer but the referees called a jumpball on the rebound, and the possession arrow pointed to Georgia.
The officials checked to monitors and put 0.2 seconds back on the clock, but the 6-foot-9 Harris’ hand tipped the ball into the side of the backboard to end the game. Harris finished with nine points, eight rebounds and five blocks.
South Carolina’s two SEC wins this season have come before the smallest crowds for a league game in Colonial Life Arena’s 10-year history. A new low was set with an announced crowd of 7,569 on Wednesday.
That mattered little to the players lifted by their first win in three weeks.
“We appreciate everything,” Cooke said. “It feels good to get a win here, and maybe we can start a little streak here going into tournament play.”
Thornton 2-8 3-4 7, D. Williams 3-8 1-2 7, Caldwell-Pope 3-12 2-2 9, Ware 3-6 0-0 8, Robinson 4-8 2-2 11, V. Williams 0-1 0-0 0, Bucklin 0-0 0-0 0, Nolte 0-1 0-0 0, Brantley 2-2 0-0 6, Florveus 1-4 1-2 3, Djurisic 2-7 1-2 5. Totals 20-57 10-14 56.
SOUTH CAROLINA (10-15)
Cooke 4-11 4-4 13, Harris 4-5 1-1 9, Slawson 2-4 2-2 6, Ellington 2-8 2-3 7, Leonard 1-6 0-0 3, Williams 4-7 0-0 10, Smith 0-2 0-0 0, Gill 2-6 5-5 9, Jackson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-49 14-15 57.
Halftime: South Carolina 28-26. 3-Point Goals: Georgia 6-17 (Brantley 2-2, Ware 2-4, Robinson 1-1, Caldwell-Pope 1-7, Thornton 0-1, Nolte 0-1, V. Williams 0-1), South Carolina 5-20 (Williams 2-4, Cooke 1-4, Ellington 1-5, Leonard 1-5, Slawson 0-1, Smith 0-1). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: Georgia 37 (Thornton 8), South Carolina 29 (Harris 8). Assists: Georgia 14 (Robinson 6), South Carolina 10 (Ellington 4). Total Fouls: Georgia 16, South Carolina 14. Attendance: 7,569.
Video highlights from the SEC Digital Network