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Execution fails USC in final minutes

South Carolina coach Darrin Horn lowers his head as Georgia pulls ahead in this file photograph.
South Carolina coach Darrin Horn lowers his head as Georgia pulls ahead in this file photograph.

ATHENS, Ga. | This was a game it could not lose. Not with postseason hopes on the line, not with a big lead late in the game.

If this were a test of South Carolina's ability to play under pressure on the road, it failed - and the ramifications could be severe.

USC lost 66-61 at Georgia on Saturday after leading by 10 points with nine minutes left, and by nine points with 5:49 left.

But the Gamecocks sputtered on offense and defense, and the Bulldogs went on a 13-0 run in the final minutes.

"There was a lot of disbelief," senior guard Brandis Raley-Ross said. "We felt like we had the game under control. They made some big shots, they made some big play and we had some boneheaded plays as well."

The Gamecocks (14-10 overall, 5-5 SEC) spoke afterwards of getting ready to practice Monday for another road test Wednesday at Arkansas.

But the results of a loss at Georgia (11-12, 3-7) is stark: with games at Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and home against Tennessee, the margin for error to make the NCAA tournament just got slimmer. The Gamecocks also dropped to 1-7 on the road.

"You guys keep focusing on OK, what haven't we done," USC coach Darrin Horn said. "Well, had we won today we would've gone back to work on Monday and tried to win the next one, whether it's road or home or not is not the point to us. The point is to try and get as many as we can in the left-hand column. And that didn't happen tonight."

After trailing most of the first half, Devan Downey hit two 3s in the final minute to tie it at halftime. Then Raley-Ross, freshman Lakeem Jackson and Downey powered a 12-1 run midway through the second half for a 52-42 lead with 9:12 remaining.

But Georgia rallied with 3s from Ricky McPhee, Trey Thompkins and Dustin Ware, cutting USC's lead to 57-53. Then Jeremy Price had an old-fashioned three-point play and was fouled again for two more free throws, giving the Bulldogs the lead for good at 60-59 with 1:09 left.

Georgia's open perimeter shots, Horn said, were the result of not being aggressive enough on defense. USC had a season-low one block; it averaged 6.9 blocks per game coming in.

And on offense, the Gamecocks just missed shots. Downey and Raley-Ross missed a combined five 3s in the final two minutes, including an airball by Downey with 20 seconds left that would have tied the game.

Downey has been dealing with a sore ankle, but he shook off questions about the injury.

"I just missed the shots," Downey said.

Horn absolved his star of any blame.

"Everybody knows he's made enough shots for us over the years that he's allowed not to make one," Horn said.

Afterwards, Downey was defiant, alluding to the victory against then-No. 1 Kentucky by saying the Gamecocks have "proved we can play and beat anybody."

His teammate echoed him.

"We know we've got a bunch of games left. The season doesn't end today," Raley-Ross said. "That's just one we thought we could've won. It's a heartbreaker that we lost it, but we're gonna come back Monday and work."

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