David Cloninger

Cloninger: Sure thing for Gamecocks now hanging by a thread

South Carolina players watch the game from the bench late during the second half against Missouri.
South Carolina players watch the game from the bench late during the second half against Missouri. AP

That’s how you play yourself right into the NIT.

South Carolina has been used to that, throughout its history. The problem now is it’s usually been that the Gamecocks have used a strong end-of-season run to make the NIT, a nice little ribbon to cap a so-so year.

This year, this team was destined for the NCAA tournament. A 15-0 start. Over 20 wins by February. Bidding for first place in the SEC.

Now, the Gamecocks are heading toward accepting an NIT bid because they fell flat on their beaks at the worst possible time.

There is no way to sugarcoat it or say it isn’t that bad. The situation remains the same – two more wins and USC should be fine. But after Tuesday’s stinker, losing to the worst team in the league playing without its second-best scorer, does anybody look at any game on USC’s remaining schedule and say, “They can win that?”

How could the Gamecocks not show up for this game? Missouri is a bad basketball team. It was made worse when Wes Clark, who has had some of his best career games against USC, flunked out right before the game. This game should have been a victory. Comfortably.

Instead, USC missed its first few shots and decided to correct it by not being patient (driving the lane and trying to get to the free-throw line), but by throwing up 3-pointers with 20 on the shot clock. By being blown away inside (senior Laimonas Chatkevicius has picked a really bad time to play like a freshman). By getting no rebounds. By allowing transition points by the bucketful.

Teams miss shots. But teams can fix it by getting higher-percentage shots from their best players. This team’s best, Sindarius Thornwell and Michael Carrera, refused to challenge the Tigers and remained on the perimeter. The rest of the team followed their lead and stayed back on their heels, trying to equal a double-digit deficit with one 3-pointer. And then when they did go inside, they couldn’t hit a layup.

USC clawed back in the game and took a couple of late leads, but too many fundamental mistakes put them right back behind. The Gamecocks’ pressure defense would collapse on one player, leaving another open for a wide-open shot. USC fixed the kick-out-for-3 weakness by allowing Missouri to get every second chance inside. For the first time all year, they didn’t respond after a loss, and lost to a team that is only playing for pride – something that’s severely lacking at USC right now.

The Tigers played inspired, with nothing to play for. The Gamecocks had everything in front of them and played with no zip, no energy, no passion.

USC hasn’t talked about NCAA projections all year and that won’t change before Saturday, when it hosts Florida. That’s for the rest of us to do – and right now, the only time we’ll be mentioning it is that USC is about to throw away one of the best chances it ever had at it. There’s never a sure thing when it comes to Gamecock athletics, and these next five games could make us all forget Tuesday, or remember it as the beginning of the end.

Perhaps I’m over-reacting, but Mizzou looked like a great team on Tuesday.

The Tigers were so good they could have been Coppin State.

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