South Carolina had been in this position so many times this season, and it looked like it finally would do enough to win a late-season SEC contest.
But once again it wasn’t meant to be as No. 18 Arkansas provided the final run in a game that featured a couple of huge momentum swings to escape with a 78-74 victory Thursday night at Colonial Life Arena.
The frustration of letting another potential victory slip away was evident in the postgame handshake line, as well as in the words by leaders Tyrone Johnson and Duane Notice in the aftermath.
“It’s been a common theme the whole season,” Notice said. “It’s become habitual, which is painful for us because we know we can compete with all these teams. It’s just the little things that we’re doing to allow the game to slip away, whether it’s at the end or at the beginning, and we dig ourselves a hole.”
The opening words by coach Frank Martin showed that frustration, as well.
“It’s the story of our season,” Martin said. “Our kids practiced well, and I knew we were going to play well. They fight and don’t back down. We put ourselves game after game after game to win and those last four minutes of the game are an adventure. I’m disappointed with the loss. I’m proud of the guys in the locker room, but it’s just frustrating.”
It was an especially bitter pill for Johnson, the lone senior who was honored before the game on Senior Night. He was a catalyst with 18 points, but he cramped up with 2:29 remaining and South Carolina leading, 73-70.
He was unable to return, and the late lead the Gamecocks (14-15, 5-12) had so many times this season went by the wayside again.
“My legs are done,” Johnson said. “I gave everything I’ve got, but it didn’t end the way I wanted it to end. Tonight was my last home game and I gave everything I had, but we came up short. But I will still try to become a better person tomorrow. Thank my teammates for fighting for me.”
Martin praised Johnson’s effort.
“For somebody to push their body to the point of exhaustion, you have to respect that,” Martin said. “He finished his home career like a champ. It’s disappointing we didn’t get him a win.”
South Carolina freshman guard Marcus Stroman, who has missed five of the past six game with a throat infection, missed a shot on a drive before Arkansas All-SEC performer Bobby Portis added a layup to make it a one-point game. Portis then stole an errant pass on the defensive end and junior guard Michael Qualls scored on a layup with 1:23 remaining to give the Razorbacks the lead for good.
Mindaugas Kacinas missed a 3-pointer from the corner for the Gamecocks, and Portis blocked a shot in the lane.
Portis again came up big when he rebounded a miss and scored to push the lead to 76-73 with 14 seconds remaining. South Carolina sophomore Sindarius Thornwell made the first of two free throws with 2.6 seconds remaining and missed the second on purpose.
Qualls got the rebound, and after a timeout, South Carolina was whistled for an intentional foul, with Portis making both shots for the final margin.
“It was a game of runs,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Our guys had enough in the tank and some resiliency to finish the game off by making some plays down the stretch. We found the energy to attack their zone with seven minutes to go.”
Arkansas built a 20-point first-half lead before South Carolina came storming back. The Gamecocks were able to get it down to 11, 49-38, at the half before they started the second half with, possibly, their best offensive stretch of the season. The Gamecocks opened the second half with an 11-2 run that included two 3-pointers from Notice, who had 14 points, and a four-point play after he was fouled on the second one.
Arkansas slowed the run with two free throws and a three-point play before South Carolina ripped off a 13-2 spurt that gave the Gamecocks a 67-58 lead with 8:40 remaining. They went up by as many as 11 points, 71-60, with a little more than seven minutes remaining.
That’s when Arkansas (24-6, 13-4) closed the game on a 18-2 run over the final 5:53. Anthlon Bell’s fourth 3-pointer started the run and his fifth got the Razorbacks within 73-68. Bell, who came off the bench to score 17 points, struck again when he rebounded a Portis miss and scored to bring the Razorbacks within 73-70 with 2:29 remaining and set the stage for the finish.
Madden 3-5 2-2 9, Harris 2-3 0-0 4, Portis 9-17 5-9 24, Qualls 7-18 4-6 18, Beard 0-4 0-0 0, Thompson 0-0 0-0 0, Durham 0-0 0-0 0, Bell 6-10 0-0 17, Babb 0-0 0-0 0, Watkins 1-1 0-0 2, Williams 2-7 0-0 4, Kingsley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-65 11-17 78.
SOUTH CAROLINA (14-15)
Thornwell 3-9 2-3 8, Johnson 5-11 6-9 18, Notice 5-9 3-3 16, Chatkevicius 3-5 0-1 6, Carrera 5-8 4-6 14, Stroman 2-3 1-2 5, McKie 0-0 0-0 0, Kacinas 2-4 2-2 7, Steele 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-49 18-26 74.
Halftime_Arkansas 49-38. 3-Point Goals_Arkansas 7-21 (Bell 5-8, Portis 1-2, Madden 1-3, Harris 0-1, Beard 0-3, Qualls 0-4), South Carolina 6-15 (Notice 3-6, Johnson 2-4, Kacinas 1-2, Carrera 0-1, Thornwell 0-2). Fouled Out_Kacinas. Rebounds_Arkansas 34 (Portis 8), South Carolina 31 (Carrera 9). Assists_Arkansas 14 (Madden 9), South Carolina 17 (Johnson 6). Total Fouls_Arkansas 23, South Carolina 15.