Even while playing its best half of basketball on offense this season, a sense of doom hung over USC on Thursday night. Everything the Gamecocks did, the Missouri Tigers did it better.
And as USC’s impressive first half faded into the night before a national television audience, the Tigers put on a clinic of how to destroy a foe from the inside out.
In blistering the Gamecocks 90-68, the Tigers did whatever they wanted on offense. They dunked, they floated, they bombed away from long range.
And they hardly missed.
Missouri shot 69.6 percent from the field. At one point, in the second half, the Tigers connected on six consecutive shots. A short while later, they hit seven in a row.
“Obviously, we had no answers today,” USC coach Frank Martin said. “We couldn’t defend them. Missouri came out and got after us and they’ve got good players. We didn’t provide much resistance and it didn’t get better as the game went on.”
By the time Tony Criswell capped that latter streak with a layup, Missouri led 76-51. By the time Jabari Brown slammed home the ninth of Missouri’s 10 dunks for an 81-60 lead, the Tigers were shooting 75 percent overall and 87.5 percent (14-of-16) in the second half.
Missouri led by as many as 25 before disinterest set in. Once that happened, the Tigers cooled off and the 2012-13 Gamecocks avoided having another record in futility set against them.
The best field goal percentage by an opponent against USC is 72.9 percent by UCLA on Nov. 21, 2001, in Hawaii. The Missouri effort was the third-best by an opponent in USC history.
The key was the man on the floor who didn’t attempt a shot.
Missouri point guard Phil Pressey was the maestro of the Tigers’ symphony, hitting every note with his best instrument — the dribble-drive penetration assist. The senior dished out nine assists to five different players.
“That’s what he does,” Martin said. “When we played (at Missouri) he couldn’t get in the paint. Today, we couldn’t keep him out of the paint. You allow him to play at his pace, he’s going to find the open man almost every time.”
Perhaps more impressive — Pressey’s nine assists led to three dunks, three 3-pointers and three layups.
“That speaks volumes to the type of player Phil is,” said Missouri’s Keion Bell, who led all scorers with 24 points. “I’ve seen him do it on numerous occasions, having complete control over the game without taking a shot.”
The first half was a track meet in which the Gamecocks ran its offense with aplomb but saw their defense shredded by the athletic Tigers.
USC connected on 7-of-12 attempts from 3-point range, including three treys from Damien Leonard, who had been covered in dust from disuse on the Gamecocks’ bench.
The Gamecocks shot 58 percent and got 28 points from their bench during that first 20 minutes.
Martin was unmoved by the display.
“In the first half we’re depending on all those 3s and they’re getting dunks and layups and free throws,” Martin said. “We gave them too many easy ones early. You let good players get clean looks at the basket early in the game, you’re playing with fire.”
Missouri matched USC’s torrid shooting shot-for-shot and then some.
The Tigers strafed the Gamecocks in the paint and bombed away from outside to the tune of 67 percent from the field. Their final three baskets of the half came on dunks — two by Alex Oriakhi and one by Bell — as the USC defense looked overmatched and out of position.
Unlike Missouri, the Gamecocks’ shooting fizzled in the second half. While Missouri was hitting those seven consecutive baskets, USC was missing six of seven attempts at their end.
The Gamecocks (13-15, 3-12 SEC) shot 31.3 percent in the second half as Missouri (20-8, 9-6) ran away. Leonard finished with a career-high 20 points to lead USC.
Brown had 23 and Oriakhi added 18 for Missouri, which outscored USC 46-24 in the paint and 21-4 in transition.
After what he called 10 days of steady improvement entering Thursday’s game, Martin said he was taken aback by the Gamecocks’ seeming backslide.
“It caught me off guard. I didn’t expect us to perform how we did today,” He said. “I did not expect it at all, but our whole goal is about getting better.
“For the last 10 days we’ve gotten better,” he added. “Today, we didn’t get better, but we need to get better tomorrow.”
USC won’t have time to dwell on this one. The Gamecocks head to College Station, Texas on Saturday to play Texas A&M.
Bowers 3-5 0-0 6, Oriakhi 6-6 6-6 18, Pressey 0-0 0-0 0, Bell 8-12 7-8 24, Brown 8-10 5-9 23, Criswell 2-4 2-3 6, Haith 0-0 0-0 0, Webster-Chan 1-4 0-0 2, Ross 3-4 0-0 8, Jankovic 1-1 0-0 3, Rosburg 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 32-46 20-26 90.
SOUTH CAROLINA (13-15)
Chatkevicius 1-1 2-2 4, Carrera 3-6 3-4 9, Smith 0-5 0-0 0, Ellington 2-7 2-4 6, Jackson 0-2 0-0 0, Williams 4-6 1-2 10, Richardson 4-7 0-0 10, Kacinas 2-5 0-0 5, Leonard 7-14 0-0 20, Slawson 1-3 2-2 4. Totals 24-56 10-14 68.
Halftime: Missouri 45-38. 3-Point Goals: Missouri 6-9 (Ross 2-2, Brown 2-3, Jankovic 1-1, Bell 1-1, Webster-Chan 0-2), South Carolina 10-26 (Leonard 6-10, Richardson 2-5, Kacinas 1-2, Williams 1-3, Smith 0-2, Ellington 0-4). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: Missouri 28 (Criswell, Pressey 5), South Carolina 20 (Carrera, Kacinas 4). Assists: Missouri 19 (Pressey 9), South Carolina 14 (Ellington, Smith 4). Total Fouls: Missouri 18, South Carolina 21. Attendance: 9,360.