South Carolina’s losing streak is now split evenly into two categories. Three blowouts, three narrow defeats.
The Gamecocks on Tuesday had a literal shot to snap out of their slide. Wes Myers dribbled to the right wing and handed off to Justin Minaya, who tried a contested 22 footer. The attempt came up well short as the buzzer sounded.
USC (13-13, 4-9 SEC) was a double-digit underdog against the No. 18 Volunteers (19-6, 9-4). It trailed by 14 points with 10:01 left in the second half. It got a combined 32 minutes from the previously little-used trio of Khadim Gueye, Jason Cudd and Ibrahim Famouke Doumbia. But through battles with foul trouble and a superior opponent, the Gamecocks did enough to have a chance in the end.
Group this loss with the Texas Tech downer on Jan. 27 and the Mississippi State defeat on Jan. 31. As Frank Martin said afterward, Carolina “had fight,” as opposed to the routs suffered to Texas A&M, Arkansas and Florida.
“We can definitely build on this,” said senior guard Frank Booker. “We didn’t execute down the stretch defensively or offensively on some of the sets, so that hurt us. Tennessee’s a really good team, so if we mess up, they’re going to take advantage of it – and they did.”
Failure to close games, as much as a lack of leadership and poor point guard play, has been a main theme for the Gamecocks this season. The 70-63 loss to the Texas Tech came as the Red Raiders outscored USC 17-5 over the final five minutes. The 81-76 loss to Mississippi State came as the Bulldogs outscored USC 11-7 over the final 4:51.
South Carolina tried to change the narrative Tuesday. The Gamecocks outscored the Volunteers 20-9 over the final 10 minutes. Booker’s layup with 36 seconds left cut the lead to one.
But Tennessee won because it dominated the game’s final two plays. Grant Williams, UT’s SEC Player of the Year candidate of a forward, scored over Chris Silva – and a late-arriving Booker – to extend the advantage to three with 11 seconds left.
“We knew it was going to (Williams) and we had a set play to make sure that once he did get it, try and double him,” Booker said. “We didn’t execute. And he’s a good player, he made the shot.”
Martin designed USC’s final offensive possession to have multiple options. Myers worked with Minaya on one side while Booker, Carolina’s best 3-point shooter, was on the other.
Booker, who led the Gamecocks with 19 points, rolled to the top of the key off a Maik Kotsar screen. Kotsar, who opened USC’s scoring in the first half with a 3, then flashed to the left wing.
“We expected them, obviously, to guard Booker,” Martin said. “So if they lost him, we’d get a shot. If they didn’t, we were gonna skip and get a backside 3.”
Booker was covered and Kotsar emerged open too late. Minaya had to shoot before the horn sounded.
“I feel like I tried to do my job,” Booker said. “Wesley, I saw him go the other way and he handed it off. I felt like I tried to get open. I think Justin got a clean look and he just missed it. That’s basketball.”
Myers, who had two points in 18 minutes, was running PG on the play because starter Hassani Gravett was out with cramps. Gravett, who scored 12 points and had four assists, exited with 3:15 left and didn’t return.
“He played hard for once in his life, so he cramped up,” Martin said. “When you play real hard and you’re not used to playing that hard all the time, that’s the kind of stuff that happens.
“But he tried today. He was a lot more engaged. He just has some mental lapses. He’s got to figure out a way to eliminate that.”
Good play mixed with key moments of bad. That was the Gamecocks on Tuesday. They host No. 10 Auburn on Saturday.
“It comes down to one stop,” Martin said, “and the defensive assignment that was laid out was not executed. Listening has been a weakness for this team the whole year.”