Mindaugas Kacinas said he was disappointed after his last game, a win against Vanderbilt, because he had seven rebounds. As a player who takes pride in rebounding, Kacinas said he always wants to get at least 10.
On Saturday, he grabbed five.
But considering he nearly beat Alabama by himself with three crucial plays in the final 79 seconds, he was willing to concede after Saturday’s 67-66 victory at Colonial Life Arena.
“It was amazing,” the sophomore said, his grin threatening to encompass leading scorer Sindarius Thornwell beside him. “I couldn’t believe it. End of the game, I made a huge mistake. (Trevor Releford) made an and-1, but I recovered with the block and the tip-in, so I don’t know, I feel great.”
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Kacinas should have. Playing with four fouls, he stayed in the lane to block Rodney Cooper’s shot with 1:09 to play and USC trailing 62-61, which freed Thornwell for a lead-taking jumper. Then after Cooper made one of two free throws to tie the game at 63, Kacinas planted himself beside Michael Carrera in the lane as Carrera took the entry pass, dribbled and elevated.
The ball bounced once, twice off the rim before coming to Kacinas, who fought through a swarm of Crimson Tide arms to put it back up, off the glass and through for a 65-63 lead. Knowing that Alabama (10-15, 4-8 SEC) would go to Releford, its best player and the guy who brought the Tide from 12 down to a four-point lead in just over eight minutes, Kacinas was assigned to stop him.
Kacinas recognized that Thornwell was about to get picked to give Releford an open look. He ran to the perimeter, forcing Releford to work around an extra screen.
Releford’s shot lodged between the left side of the rim and the backboard. The Gamecocks (10-15, 3-9) got the ball to Thornwell, who aced two free throws to end with 22 points, and although Releford sunk a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, it wasn’t enough. USC won back-to-back SEC games for the first time since Jan. 15 and Jan. 19, 2011, and did it by not surrendering to its weaknesses in previous losses this year — giving up when the situation seemed the bleakest.
“Every timeout coming down the stretch, there was not a lot of strategy,” coach Frank Martin said. “It was about challenging guys and not giving in to fatigue, not giving in to a difficult moment. We were on fumes. We just didn’t have a lot of bounce in our step.”
USC led by 12 with over 16 minutes to play, having contained Releford well and forcing Alabama to shoot 5-of-20 from the field in the first half. But the Tide came out firing, hitting 13-of-23 in the second half to take the lead.
Alabama hit back-to-back 3-pointers, than began driving the lane. The Gamecocks couldn’t get a charge or a clean block, resulting in five straight possessions where Alabama was rewarded two shots, and the Tide made all 10 free throws.
That was followed by three consecutive 3s, two from Releford, as Alabama took a 60-56 lead. With 3:52 to play, this was where so many other USC wins had slipped away.
Not this time. The Gamecocks turned to Thornwell, their star-in-the-making, who scored three points and assisted Carrera on two more. Carrera took a charge from Releford to negate one Alabama possession, and once it became 62-61 Tide, Kacinas rose.
“He’s been playing that way,” Martin said. “He’s our best ball-screen defender and his ball-screen defense was not very good today. I spent a lot of the game aggravated with him. He stayed in tune.”
Releford’s 3 was met with a wince and a prayer that was answered when it had the best possible result. It didn’t go through, and it wasn’t rebounded by Alabama. “I’m going to quote Steve Spurrier,” Martin said. “I guess the good Lord was looking down on the Gamecocks today.”
The Gamecocks also made the plays instead of having them made against them.
“We blew the lead, but we didn’t give up,” Thornwell said. “We continued to play defense. We just knew that we were one stop away.”
Key 0-2 0-1 0, Hale 3-8 4-6 11, Releford 7-12 9-10 27, Jacobs 1-3 0-0 2, Cooper 3-8 5-6 11, Engstrom 0-0 0-0 0, Taylor 2-3 2-2 6, Randolph 2-4 0-0 6, Obasohan 0-3 3-6 3, Slaughter 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-43 23-31 66.
SOUTH CAROLINA (10-15)
Thornwell 6-11 9-10 22, Williams 4-8 0-0 10, Notice 2-7 0-0 4, Carrera 2-4 4-4 8, Kacinas 3-5 0-0 6, Shaw 3-5 0-0 8, Chatkevicius 2-4 3-6 7, Henry 0-1 0-0 0, Steele 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 23-47 16-20 67.
Halftime_South Carolina 28-19. 3-Point Goals_Alabama 7-15 (Releford 4-7, Randolph 2-2, Hale 1-3, Cooper 0-3), South Carolina 5-13 (Shaw 2-2, Williams 2-4, Thornwell 1-4, Steele 0-1, Notice 0-2). Fouled Out_Notice. Rebounds_Alabama 25 (Cooper 5), South Carolina 27 (Carrera 7). Assists_Alabama 11 (Cooper 5), South Carolina 13 (Notice 6). Total Fouls_Alabama 20, South Carolina 23. A_8,186.