All they wanted was to finish. Just finish one game, where a big lead wasn’t blown or they wouldn’t have to be satisfied with a “good effort.” Just once where they played 40 minutes and not 35.
They picked a hell of a time to do it.
South Carolina survived a furious Kentucky rally in the final 33 seconds to post the biggest win of Frank Martin’s tenure on Saturday, 72-67, upsetting the No. 17 Wildcats and causing a raucous student section to storm the Colonial Life Arena court in celebration. It will definitely cost a hefty fine from the SEC, but the pent-up burst of emotion after a season featuring too many unfinished final five minutes will probably be enough compensation for a beleaguered program aching for some feel-good.
"It’s like a movie,” gushed Sindarius Thornwell, who scored 14 points and made two free throws with 20 seconds to go for a 70-67 lead. “You always dream of upsetting somebody and storming the court."
With Kentucky unable to hit from the field (17.2 percent) in the first half, the Gamecocks (11-18, 4-12 SEC) took a three-point lead at halftime. The familiar problems – foul trouble to the bigs – were creeping in but USC was playing with its heart so far ahead of its skill that some began to think, “Just maybe ”
The “maybe” began getting clearer as the Gamecocks stormed to a 16-point lead with just over 10 minutes to play. The half-and-half blue-and-garnet CLA was quaking and Kentucky coach John Calipari was in the UK locker room, ejected from the game as part of three technical fouls on the Wildcats’ bench.
That’s when Kentucky began to make its run. Guards Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and James Young began stroking 3-pointers, USC was taking rushed shots and the lead began to dwindle. USC’s students began to chant “Over-rated” with a 12-point lead and over eight minutes to play, then regretted it when the lead was cut to three with 2:41 to play.
“We did everything we could to screw it up, I promise you that,” Martin said. “We made a lot of mistakes in those last 30 seconds of the game. But that’s OK. That’s what happens when you deal with young kids.
“I told them, ‘I can’t teach you how to bow up and stand up to somebody in the middle of the game.’ We fought back.”
Center Laimonas Chatkevicius rebounded Thornwell’s missed 3-pointer, was fouled and hit two free throws. Two Kentucky misses – the Wildcats’ superior height and USC’s fouls resulted in a 46-28 rebounding advantage – resulted in a foul and one made free throw for Michael Carrera.
As the Wildcats continued to hang around, Chatkevicius rebounded a missed 3-pointer from Thornwell and softly floated it into the rim, which was answered by a Young 3-pointer. Undeterred, Carrera found the big man one more time in the lane, and Chatkevicius finished a baby hook to give him six points in less than two sizzling minutes.
“Once we have a smaller guy guarding the big man, we try to feed them in the post,” shrugged Chatkevicius, who finished with eight points and five boards.
Young bobbled a ball right to Williams and the senior was fouled. One of the best free-throw shooters in the country, Williams hit both and the crowd could feel it, up 68-61 with a mere 32 seconds to play.
Then, it happened. Aaron Harrison hit a 3, Young stole the inbound pass and fed Julius Randle, who hit a layup with a foul. The and-1 shot went and the Gamecocks’ lead was one point with 21 seconds.
“The first thing we talked about in the last media timeout, the coaches were indicating to us, we had been in plenty of situations like that before with different teams,” Williams said. “He told us we just got to buckle down.”
USC inbounded to Thornwell, who was immediately fouled. He swished two shots for a three-point lead, and the Gamecocks stuck to Young on the next possession. Young threw to Alex Poythress, who elevated for the 3 as lumps leaped into throats across the arena.
It hit front rim and USC snared the rebound. Following two frantic inbound passes where the Wildcats nearly had another steal but fouled Williams instead, the senior was on the line for two more shots.
It was over. The Gamecocks beat a Top 25 opponent for the first time since 2011 and equaled their SEC win total of last year.
“Real proud of our guys,” an exhausted Martin said. “We weren’t in a very good mood when we got on that plane after Auburn. I’ve been pushing these kids real hard so they can understand what it takes to win against quality teams. We’ve been in this moment numerous times this year and just have not been able to close it out.”
On Saturday, they did.
“That was one of the most intense games I’ve played in since I’ve been here at South Carolina,” said Williams, who finished with 24. “I kind of almost blacked out. ‘Did this really happen?’
“It’s something I’ll never, ever forget.”
Randle 1-7 8-9 10, Johnson 2-3 4-7 8, Young 4-12 8-10 19, Aa. Harrison 4-16 11-12 21, An. Harrison 1-3 2-4 5, Lee 0-0 0-0 0, Polson 0-2 0-0 0, Hood 0-0 0-0 0, Cauley-Stein 1-2 0-0 2, Poythress 1-7 0-0 2, Hawkins 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 14-52 33-42 67.
SOUTH CAROLINA (11-18)
Henry 2-6 0-0 4, Carrera 3-5 4-8 11, Kacinas 0-0 0-0 0, Thornwell 4-16 4-5 14, Williams 4-10 15-16 24, Notice 4-8 0-0 9, Chatkevicius 3-5 2-2 8, Theus Jr. 0-0 0-0 0, Ringer 0-2 0-1 0, Steele 1-1 0-1 2. Totals 21-53 25-33 72.
Halftime_South Carolina 31-28. 3-Point Goals_Kentucky 6-17 (Young 3-5, Aa. Harrison 2-6, An. Harrison 1-2, Poythress 0-1, Randle 0-1, Polson 0-2), South Carolina 5-13 (Thornwell 2-3, Carrera 1-1, Notice 1-4, Williams 1-5). Fouled Out_Cauley-Stein, Aa. Harrison. Rebounds_Kentucky 46 (Randle 15), South Carolina 28 (Carrera 7). Assists_Kentucky 10 (An. Harrison 4), South Carolina 11 (Thornwell 4). Total Fouls_Kentucky 26, South Carolina 26. Technicals_Kentucky Bench 3. Attendance_15,303.