The temptation is to think the USC men’s team is camped out at rock bottom in the SEC.
Losing 74-71 on Saturday at home against Auburn days after an ugly loss at a supposedly bottom-feeding Mississippi State would appear to provide plenty of evidence to that effect.
First-year USC coach Frank Martin is more of a marathoner than a sprinter, though. So while USC is 10-5 overall and 0-2 in conference play, he sees a little hope.
“The bright side is, we’re knocking on the door,” Martin said. “We’re right there. There’s a lot of plays we can make that we’re leaving on the court, be it layups, rebounds we miss, simple passes we don’t make.
“There’s a lot of plays we can make,” Martin continued. “That’s two games that if we make just one more layup or make one more play, we’re probably sitting at 2-0 right now.”
Two plays that stand out came at the end of the game. Trailing by three with the ball and 35 seconds remaining, USC failed to convert coming out of one timeout, but got a second chance with 9 seconds.
They didn’t make the most of it.
Mindaugas Kacinas took the inbounds pass at the wrong spot on the floor and was swallowed up by Auburn’s defense as he handed off to Bruce Ellington. Finding himself in a crowd of orange jerseys and with Kacinas tangled up among them, Ellington put up a poor attempt that missed badly.
It was an unfortunate end to what had been an entertaining game for the announced crowd of 9,117. There were 27 lead changes and 13 ties as both teams traded shot-for-shot for much of the second half.
Auburn started hot and remained hot throughout the game, hitting 58.5 percent of its shots — 60 percent in the first half and 57.1 percent in the second half.
The Gamecocks, fueled by a dominant offensive rebounding performance, countered with volume. USC grabbed 17 offensive boards, led by guard Damien Leonard’s six.
But when USC would get a big shot, Auburn always seemed ready to answer. When Eric Smith nailed a 3-pointer for a 66-64 lead, Brian Greene replied with one of his own to take back the lead.
When Smith responded with another three, Auburn rattled off five consecutive points to scramble back in front, 71-69.
And so it went.
“Missing layups, that’s all I’ve got to say,” Ellington offered after the game. “And down the stretch, we need to sit down and guard the ball.”
Martin praised the Gamecocks’ offensive effort on Saturday, but dismissed the team’s defense.
“Our defense wasn’t any good today,” Martin said. “We played hard, don’t misunderstand me, but our attention to detail defensively wasn’t good. We let them catch the ball wherever they wanted and they have too many shooters.”
Frankie Sullivan led Auburn with 17 points. Rob Chubb dominated USC inside for 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Four Gamecocks reached double figures, led by Ellington’s 18. Leonard had one of the best games of his career with 17 points and nine rebounds. Smith and Lakeem Jackson each finished with 10 points.
During his time at Kansas State, Martin had teams that began Big 12 play with 0-4 and 1-4 records. Both times, the Wildcats reached postseason play.
“I don’t pay attention to the record,” Martin said. “Let’s worry about the things we can control.”
With a good defensive performance in Wednesday’s loss at Mississippi State and a solid offensive effort on Saturday, Martin said he has reason to believe the Gamecocks indeed will be better at the end than the beginning.
“I’m a lot more encouraged than discouraged,” he said. “As we continue to fight to learn how to win these kinds of games, it’s going to be a whole lot of fun when we figure things out.”
Frank Martin highlights
Chubb 4-5 8-9 16, Payne 4-7 0-2 8, S. Johnson 1-2 2-4 5, Wallace 0-1 1-2 1, Sullivan 5-13 5-9 17, Dixon-Tatum 1-1 2-2 4, Spencer 0-0 0-0 0, Greene Jr. 6-6 0-0 14, Granger 0-0 0-0 0, N. Johnson 3-6 0-0 9. Totals 24-41 18-28 74.
SOUTH CAROLINA (10-5)
Kacinas 2-3 2-2 6, Jackson 4-7 2-4 10, Richardson 0-4 0-0 0, Smith 3-6 2-4 10, Ellington 8-15 1-1 18, Williams 0-3 0-0 0, Chatkevicius 0-0 0-0 0, Carrera 1-5 4-4 6, Leonard 6-9 0-1 17, Slawson 2-5 0-0 4. Totals 26-57 11-16 71.
Halftime: South Carolina 39-38. 3-Point Goals: Auburn 8-18 (N. Johnson 3-6, Greene Jr. 2-2, Sullivan 2-7, S. Johnson 1-2, Payne 0-1), South Carolina 8-20 (Leonard 5-8, Smith 2-4, Ellington 1-4, Slawson 0-1, Williams 0-1, Richardson 0-2). Fouled Out: Carrera, N. Johnson. Rebounds: Auburn 24 (Chubb 10), South Carolina 31 (Leonard 9). Assists: Auburn 14 (Wallace 7), South Carolina 20 (Carrera, Ellington 5). Total Fouls: Auburn 23, South Carolina 24. Attendance: 9,117.