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Emerson: USC's dance card gets vetoed in Athens

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.

THE BACK HALLWAYS inside Georgia's Stegeman Coliseum are dreary. It's an old structure, with drab paint on the walls that lead past the visitors locker room to a bus depot.

The atmosphere was just as dreary around the South Carolina men's basketball team Saturday evening. As players trudged out toward the bus and staff members dragged duffle bags, the consequences of the loss to Georgia was clear to them.

It is tempting to say that USC's hopes to make the NCAA tournament were erased the moment Dominique Archie was injured after that dunk in Charleston. The situation around Mike Holmes - his injury and then dismissal - only made it worse.

In fact, the win over then-No. 1 Kentucky made it possible - never probable, but possible. As late as Saturday, SI.com's Seth Davis was on CBS proclaiming that the Gamecocks were among his last four in the tournament. (Let this be a lesson: Never trust sportswriters named Seth.)

This was a key year for USC's program. An NCAA tournament trip, and the publicity that comes with it, would have been a great bridge to the next phase - post-Downey. Next year's team will be very young, especially if Archie does not return. Archie can apply for a medical redshirt, but his thoughts on the matter are unknown since he hasn't been made available to the media since his November injury.

The loss to Georgia now makes an NCAA bid hard to imagine. The Gamecocks will be heavy underdogs in two more road games (Kentucky and Vanderbilt), and Wednesday's trip to Arkansas will be no peach either. Tennessee visits Columbia on Saturday, and the Vols have been a tough matchup for the Gamecocks.

After Saturday's loss, coach Darrin Horn scolded the media for talking about what the Gamecocks had not done - namely, win on the road - as opposed to its accomplishments. And yes, USC's 5-5 record in the SEC is an achievement. Its NCAA hopes were buried by most pundits after Archie's surgery, yet the Gamecocks crawled back into the picture.

Horn deserves credit for that. He has instilled a confidence in his players that has them often playing above their heads. Downey also deserves his share of the praise after doing everything he could to carry his team. Fellow senior Brandis Raley-Ross and junior Sam Muldrow have played well most of the time, and other players have had their moments.

But it can all go only so far, and the team may have hit the wall amid the drab paint in Athens. The absence of Holmes and Archie means there will be games, like Saturday, when an opposing team will get key inside baskets. And when the opposition is hitting its 3s - as Georgia did down the stretch and Kentucky did not - it's a lethal blow to USC's gameplan.

Horn and the seniors can be forgiven for being frustrated. This was supposed to be a special season, and it got away for reasons out of their control.

But the season isn't over, Raley-Ross said after the game. The remaining schedule is tough, but Downey's presence and Horn's style of play will give the Gamecocks a chance.

The end result probably will be the NIT. Considering everything, is there shame in that?

Just ask the other Carolina.

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