AUBURN, Ala. – Frank Martin this season has rubbed his head, scratched his chin, thrown his arms helplessly in the air and has slumped in his seat.
The South Carolina men’s basketball team does this to its coach. “Mind-boggling” is the term Martin’s used to describe the instances in which the Gamecocks can’t make simple plays, the times when the Gamecocks become their own toughest opponent.
USC on Saturday had to face the SEC leaders. No. 14 Auburn, with its superior guard play and solid rim protecting, was going to provide a hard enough challenge.
But there was Martin again delivering familiar antics on the sideline.
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The Tigers clinched their first SEC title in 19 years with a 79-70 win at a sold-out Auburn Arena. The mass of orange and blue cheered every Bryce Brown 3-pointer, every Chuma Okeke block – and every errant South Carolina pass and dribble.
The Gamecocks (16-15, 7-11 SEC) committed 20 turnovers. This came a week after they gave it up a season-high 21 times in a road loss to Mississippi State.
“It’s been our downfall the whole year,” Martin said, “our inability to take care of the basketball.”
The Gamecocks could have won this game. Like the first matchup in Columbia – an 84-75 USC victory on Feb. 17 – USC looked like the dominant side for parts of the first half. With 9:17 remaining in the opening period, a Maik Kotsar layup put the Gamecocks ahead, 25-11. At that point, Carolina was locking down defensively and being careful enough on offense.
“We didn’t turn it over,” Martin said. “We passed it us instead of them.”
If only Martin could bottle up those flawless moments and use them during next week’s SEC Tournament in St. Louis. Saturday’s loss means USC will play in Wednesday’s first round. It didn’t earn a bye for the first time since 2015.
Bad habits didn’t disappear in the regular season finale. If South Carolina wants to recapture any kind of postseason magic, it’ll have to cut down on stretches such as an ugly 4:49 period of Saturday’s first half when the Gamecocks turned the ball over seven times, spurring a 9-0 Auburn run.
The Tigers (25-6, 13-5) finished with 12 steals. They scored 18 points off USC’s turnovers. They blanked the Gamecocks, 20-0, in fast break points.
“We’ve made unbelievable progress as the year’s gone on,” Martin said. “Disappointing today because I believed in the progress that we have made. We couldn’t pass the ball to ourselves today. That’s not giving yourself a chance to win.
“Every time we allowed our defense to set, we were pretty good. But give Auburn credit.”
Part of USC’s victory formula two weeks ago included a relative shutdown of Brown, Jared Harper and Mustapha Heron. That heralded guard trio was held to eight FGs on 36 attempts at Colonial Life Arena.
On Saturday, Brown had eight 3s alone. The junior scored a game-high 29 points. His trey with 15:36 left put Auburn in the lead for good.
“He had way too many open looks,” said Carolina senior guard Frank Booker. “If you give a guy like him that many open looks, he’s going to hit them. Once he sees the ball going in, it’s kind of hard to contest it. He’s a good player and he’s going to make shots.”
Harper added 18 points and eight assists. Heron went 10-for-10 from the free throw line.
Orange and blue confetti rained down onto the floor with 1:39 to go, foreshadowing a celebration nearly two decades in the making for Auburn.
"My first thought was, 'Act like we've been there before,’” joked Tigers coach Bruce Pearl. “Then I remembered that it's been a long time since we've been there."
South Carolina was used to Saturday’s position. A competitive game against an elite team, but an unfortunate result. It’s 3-4 this season against ranked opponents, with each loss coming by nine points or fewer.
Booker led the Gamecocks with a career-high 27 points. Chris Silva had 19 points and 11 rebounds, but also committed eight turnovers. The junior fouled out with 3:38 remaining and Carolina down 11.