The stretch was brief – a total of 77 seconds – but it was enough to turn South Carolina into believers. When the Gamecocks did it again, they nearly became winners.
USC, the No. 11 seed in this SEC tournament, had a daunting task Thursday evening. Sixth-seeded and NCAA tournament-bound Arkansas was the opponent that had things the Gamecocks didn’t – experience, dynamic ball-handlers and athleticism at all five positions. The matchup, as shown previously this season in Fayetteville, wasn’t favorable for Frank Martin’s team.
But before the Razorbacks polished away a 69-64 win that advanced them to Friday’s quarterfinals, the Gamecocks posed a couple serious threats. They cut a 15-point deficit to one with 7:22 remaining.
“We fought to get back,” said sophomore forward Maik Kotsar. “The whole team fought, but in the end it came down to a few final possessions that we messed up, didn’t execute well.”
Carolina’s regular season is over with a 17-16 record. It twice teased the possibility of advancing to Friday’s quarterfinals against Friday. Instead, it’s the Razorbacks (22-10) who get third-seeded Florida at 9:30 p.m. in the Scottrade Center.
“A 15-point lead,” said Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, “it’s never safe against a Frank Martin team.”
Two big rallies – one for each half -- were the highlights for South Carolina.
Justin Minaya, then Frank Booker, then Felipe Haase. Three 3-pointers on four possessions in the first half erased a deficit and put USC into a tie with Arkansas. It was Carolina taking a page from the Ole Miss game Wednesday when Minaya and Booker teamed together for 3s on three straight possessions, a hot streak that helped them have Thursday’s opportunity.
But from the 4:02 mark of the first half, when Haase finished a drive and dish from Wes Myers with a left wing 3, to the 16:18 mark of the second half, when Arkansas’ All-SEC guard Jaylen Barford swished a free throw to complete a 3-point play, the Hogs outscored the Gamecocks, 21-6.
Offensive ruts have long been a theme for Carolina this season. Such a stretch crushed its second attempt at a comeback, too.
After going down 15, the Gamecocks scored 23 points in nine minutes. A Kotsar layup made trimmed things to 56-55.
“During that run,” said junior forward Chris Silva, who recorded his 10th double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds, “we got the ball inside. We made simple plays, we made open shots. That open shots we had, that’s what got us back in the game.”
USC was a better defensive unit Thursday than it showed on Feb. 6 at Bud Walton Arena. That night Barford and Daryl Macon combined for 49 points – the most by a duo against Carolina this season – in an 81-65 win. They were held to 20 fewer points in the rematch.
“We just keyed on them a little bit more,” Booker said. “We didn’t give them any easy shots.”
Barford, however, did anchor the game’s biggest sequence. Clinging to a 61-59 lead with 3:30 left, the senior beat the shot clock buzzer with a 3 at the top of the key. On USC’s ensuing possession, Barford stole Booker’s in-bounds pass and finished with a layup.
“I guess it was kind of like a ‘HORSE’ shot,” Barford said of his buzzer-beater.
Macon hit two free throws after a key offensive rebound that put Arkansas up four with 39 seconds remaining.
“At this time of year – when you play in March, if you want to have a chance to win, every game's going to be like that,” Martin said. “It's going to come down to making the simple play, being able to execute, being able to be on the same page.
“There was a two-point game, and there's a loose ball underneath their basket. There's a big scramble, the ball's right there. All Wes Myers has to do is get on the ball, go down and get a chance to tie it, take the lead, whatever. We don't come up with it. He just stands there and looks at it. They come up with it. Now they get two, we foul, and it makes it a four-point game.”
South Carolina, which shot 38 percent for the game, missed nine of its final 10 attempts from the field. Its last FG – a Silva layup that cut the lead to five – came at the 2:35 mark.
The Gamecocks now await their NIT fate.