The New Year’s Eve party South Carolina threw Sunday night at The Pavilion included one guest in a walking boot and another limping around the room.
The Gamecocks barely came dressed for the occasion against Ole Miss. Before tip-off, the program announced Hassani Gravett was being held out because of a sprained ankle. That made USC down two guards for its SEC opener as Kory Holden is already missing because of a hamstring injury.
The situation grew more challenging when Wes Myers, Gravett’s replacement at point, hit serious foul trouble before the first half ended.
Carolina had to scratch, claw, play zone defense, occasionally play a freshman at point guard, another rookie at small forward and perform in a road environment.
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It almost worked.
Frank Martin’s depleted bunch fought hard, but took a 74-69 loss before an announced crowd of 5,849. The Gamecocks dropped to 9-4 overall and 0-1 in the league for the first time since 2015.
“When a guy goes down, we don’t go in the locker room and say, ‘Oh God, poor us,’” Martin said. “You gotta go do your job, next guy up. You recruit these kids, they all want to play. So when they get a chance to play, they got to do it. Simple as that.
“I was proud of our fight.”
The effort was never in question against the Rebels (8-5, 1-0). It was the handful of missed plays in crunch time that led to USC’s shortcoming.
Chris Silva and Frank Booker led the Gamecocks with 21 points apiece. Myers, a senior transfer making his first start since he played Maine, finished with three points, five assists, four turnovers and four fouls. He picked up his third at the 6:54 mark of the first half.
Whistles – including four fouls also charged to Silva and Justin Minaya – forced Martin to get creative. With limited options, the sixth-year coach had freshman David Beatty run the point at times. There was also stretches when Martin had Silva, Maik Kotsar and Felipe Haase on the floor together, something that trio of bigs hadn’t done much this season. Also of note: The primary man-to-man team went with a mixture of 2-3 and 3-2 zones.
Through all the unfamiliarity, the Gamecocks went into a timeout down two points with 2:55 left in the game. The huddle call was to clear space for a Myers run to the rim.
“We executed,” Martin said, “he just turned it over.”
Myers was stripped of the basketball within a couple feet of the bucket, one of Carolina’s 14 turnovers.
With Ole Miss still clinging to a 65-63 lead on Carolina’s next possession, Beatty missed the front end of a 1-and-1.
The Gamecocks never got to within two again. Down 70-67 with 28 seconds left, Myers’ layup attempt was blocked by 6-foot-7 Rebel forward Marcanvis Hymon. Martin felt Hymon bumped Myers enough to warrant a foul.
“But they didn’t call it,” Martin said. “Wes has to make a stronger play there.”
South Carolina, down 31-30 at halftime, led by as many as four in the second half. Ole Miss took the advantage back for good with 7:31 to go when Deandre Burnett made the second of back-to-back 3s.
Burnett, a senior and preseason All-SEC selection, scored 15 of his team-high 18 points in the second half.
“In basketball, ultimately it comes down to where the ball bounces sometimes,” said Rebels coach Andy Kennedy. “But as a coach, you can’t always control that. But what you can control is making sure you got guys in the right spots. … I thought at the end our spacing was much better, which allowed us to make some plays.”
Ole Miss made 20 of 23 free throws in the second half. The Gamecocks were twice fouled on 3-pointers in the final minute, but Kotsar and Haase combined to make four of the six tries.
Burnett cemented the final score with two FTs with 11 seconds remaining.
“We ran what Coach Frank wanted us to run,” Booker said. “We ran it the right way and two times we got to the free throw line. It shows that if we run stuff correctly and do what he asks, we’ll be in a position to win.”
Carolina returns to Colonial Life Arena to face Missouri (10-3) on Wednesday.