Perhaps Frank Martin is running out of ways to describe his team’s season on the brink.
Following Sunday’s 66-61 home defeat against Tennessee, USC’s first-year coach found himself mired in his first four-game losing streak since Kansas State dropped four during the 2008-2009 season, his second as the Wildcats’ coach.
But whereas that team collected itself and won 10 of its final 13 regular-season games, Martin has no idea where this group of Gamecocks is headed. That led him to pull out a time-honored cliche to describe the team’s predicament.
“The night is always darkest before the sun comes up,” Martin said. “And if any of them want to show up with their head between their legs, they need to turn their stuff in and leave.”
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For most of Sunday’s game, the Gamecocks appeared to be on the road to recovery. Following two brutal road losses at Florida and Kentucky and a tough setback at home against Georgia, the team’s defense improved and shots were falling.
That is, until the Gamecocks took a 57-55 lead with 3:46 remaining.
“We’re up two,” Martin said. “Get a stop. Get a stop. Get a stop and get the ball back, and we have a chance to go run clock off, get a shot, maybe build your lead a little bit and put pressure on them.”
Instead, a defensive breakdown left Jordan McRae wide open for a 3-pointer that put Tennessee back in front. Bruce Ellington pulled a quick trigger on a 3-pointer following a timeout, and Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes promptly put on a rebounding clinic on both ends of the floor.
“We go down, we get lazy, we give up an open 3 and now you’re down again,” Martin said. “And then the rest of the game, we played with our heads hanging instead of our heads held high. When you do that, that’s usually when you get the medicine you need for losing.”
More like a bitter pill.
Stokes’ dominance in the paint allowed Tennessee to reel off 29 seconds, miss a 3-pointer, get the ball back and rattle off another 12 ticks before a second defensive breakdown left Skylar McBee open for a trey that gave Tennessee a 61-57 edge.
For one of his key rebounds, Stokes outmuscled three Gamecocks for the ball.
“Winners make plays,” Martin said. “I don’t care what we did for 38 minutes, if we want to win, you have to go get that rebound.
“We missed the first one, they milked the clock to the end and miss that shot and got another offensive rebound,” Martin continued. “And instead of getting mad and saying ‘You know what, it’s only a one-point ball game,’ we just stood around and gave them a wide-open 3 to make it a four-point ball game.”
Making matters worse, USC couldn’t answer at the other end. USC (12-11, 2-8 SEC) managed one basket over the game’s final five minutes — Brian Richardson’s desperate 3-pointer with 16 seconds remaining — and were outrebounded 9-4 during that stretch.
“I don’t know what to tell you about our offense,” Martin said. “It’s embarrassing. I’ve had junior varsity teams that ran better offense.”
There were bright spots. Michael Carrera recorded his fourth double-double, leading USC with 18 points and 11 rebounds. He had seven points in the game’s first five minutes, then accounted for six of the team’s first 10 second half points. Richardson added 17 and showed increasing confidence driving to the basket. USC forced 18 turnovers, seven coming on steals.
Stokes led Tennessee (12-10, 4-6) with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Trae Golden added 16 points.
Facing the possibility of the first five-game losing streak of his career and admitting to being befuddled by the team’s breakdowns and apparent lack of mental toughness at crunch time, Martin still found a silver lining.
“If we played every game we played like the Florida game, I’d probably be calling people back in Florida to see if they needed a real-estate agent,” Martin said. “That would mean we’re too far away, and I’m probably not going to get this thing done. But knowing that seven of the 10 (losses) we’ve had a chance to win with two minutes to go, that tells me we’re right there. It’s right there. Get up, do your job a little bit better. Be a little more committed, a little more disciplined, a little tougher, a little stronger.”
Stokes 6-9 8-13 20, Hall 1-2 0-0 2, Richardson 1-4 5-6 7, Moore 0-0 0-0 0, McRae 1-7 4-4 7, Makanjuola 0-1 2-2 2, Reese 0-1 0-0 0, Golden 4-8 8-10 16, McBee 3-7 0-0 8, Chievous 2-2 0-0 4, Edwards 0-0 0-2 0. Totals 18-41 27-37 66.
SOUTH CAROLINA (12-11)
Carrera 6-9 6-9 18, Jackson 1-4 1-1 3, Richardson 6-15 3-5 17, Ellington 1-9 4-6 6, Leonard 1-6 2-2 4, Smith 3-5 2-2 9, Kacinas 0-1 0-0 0, Slawson 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 20-51 18-25 61.
Halftime: Tennessee 32-29. 3-Point Goals: Tennessee 3-14 (McBee 2-6, McRae 1-3, Reese 0-1, Richardson 0-2, Golden 0-2), South Carolina 3-16 (Richardson 2-7, Smith 1-2, Kacinas 0-1, Ellington 0-1, Carrera 0-1, Leonard 0-4). Fouled Out: Chievous. Rebounds: Tennessee 32 (Stokes 10), South Carolina 30 (Carrera 11). Assists: Tennessee 10 (Richardson 5), South Carolina 8 (Ellington 5). Total Fouls: Tennessee 23, South Carolina 22. Attendance: 10,101.