The shot hung in the air, glass turning red and buzzer blaring throughout the Georgia Dome. South Carolina had given Arkansas chance after chance and this was going to be the one to end the Gamecocks’ season.
But Rashad Madden’s half-court heave hit the rim and bounced harmlessly away, Michael Carrera leaped onto Laimonas Chatkevicius’ back and yes, it was true – the Gamecocks were still alive in the SEC tournament.
“I said this earlier in the year and I’m going to use it again, because I kind of like it,” a grizzled coach Frank Martin said, minutes after USC’s 71-69 win against Arkansas on Thursday. “I’m going to quote coach Spurrier again – ‘I guess the good Lord was looking down on the Gamecocks today.’”
Divine intervention or other reason, something’s happening in Atlanta.
A day after they cost Auburn coach Tony Barbee his job, the Gamecocks likely ended Arkansas’ NCAA tournament hopes with a surprising win. On short rest and unable to get an offensive rhythm thanks to the Razorbacks’ pressure defense, USC survived Arkansas’ aggression and its own mistakes to win at least two games in the SEC tournament for the first time since 2006.
Next up is fourth-seed Tennessee, which is fighting for its own NCAA tournament berth. USC (14-19) will play the Volunteers at approximately 3:30 p.m. on Friday with a semifinal appearance on the line. The Gamecocks have lost 13 in a row to Tennessee, including 72-53 in Knoxville this year.
But after they did their best to give away Thursday’s game and still won, the Gamecocks are ready for Friday.
“We’re not thinking of winning three,” Brenton Williams said. “We’re just trying to win one, and that’s all.”
Hampered with foul trouble and Arkansas holding Williams to one field goal and 10 points, USC kept finding answers as the game see-sawed in the second half. The score was tied 11 times and the lead switched 18 times in the second half, Arkansas (21-11) appearing to take control when Michael Qualls stuck a layup with 2:20 to go.
Trailing 69-66, the Gamecocks didn’t panic. With their guards unable to penetrate, they found an opening for Chatkevicius, who was on his way to a career-high 16 points. He was fouled and made one shot, but the other was rebounded by Mindaugas Kacinas and passed to Sindarius Thornwell, who was fouled.
Thornwell hit two free throws to tie the game with 1:36 to go, and when Mardracus Wade’s 3-pointer was off the mark, Williams was fouled. The nation’s best free-throw shooter toed the line – and missed the first one.
“I have no idea what that was all about,” Williams said. “I knew once I let it go, I had shot it higher than I usually do.”
Williams made the second one for a 70-69 USC lead, but there were 35 seconds to play. Madden’s jumper but missed, Thornwell rebounded and was fouled, and he headed to the line to lock up the game.
He missed both. Arkansas rebounded.
“We were up one, with everybody missing free throws,” said Thornwell, who scored a game-high 17. “So, regardless of those missed free throws or whatnot, we still were up. So, just all we needed was one rebound, one stop, and we would go back and shoot some more free throws and expand the lead.”
Bobby Portis missed a shot underneath the basket and Carrera muscled the rebound away, getting fouled and going to the line. He missed one and made one with 2.9 seconds to play.
Madden got one last crack at it but had to shoot from half-court. As it fell to the court, Arkansas headed for a long four days of waiting for the selection committee’s announcement and the jubilant Gamecocks prepared to play again.
The last time USC won two or more games in the SEC tournament, it played in the 2006 championship game. The Gamecocks aren’t thinking about that, nor any of the other odds against them.
They’re winning. They want to keep winning.
“Survive and advance,” Martin said, his playoff beard beginning to fill in. “That’s all you’re geared up to do at this time of the year.”
SOUTH CAROLINA (14-19)
Thornwell 4-8 6-8 17, Williams 1-4 8-10 10, Henry 1-4 1-2 3, Carrera 0-4 3-6 3, Kacinas 2-7 0-0 4, Shaw 1-3 0-0 2, Notice 3-9 4-5 11, Chatkevicius 4-5 8-10 16, Steele 2-3 0-0 5. Totals 18-47 30-41 71.
Madden 2-6 7-9 11, Clarke 5-12 2-2 13, Portis 5-11 1-3 11, Gulley III 0-2 2-2 2, Qualls 3-5 3-4 10, Wade 2-3 2-2 6, Harris 1-4 2-2 4, Scott Jr. 0-1 0-0 0, Bell 2-5 0-0 5, Haydar 0-0 0-0 0, Williams 0-1 0-0 0, Kingsley 3-4 1-2 7. Totals 23-54 20-26 69.
Halftime_South Carolina 35-32. 3-Point Goals_South Carolina 5-12 (Thornwell 3-4, Notice 1-1, Steele 1-2, Henry 0-1, Shaw 0-1, Williams 0-3), Arkansas 3-14 (Bell 1-2, Clarke 1-3, Qualls 1-3, Wade 0-1, Scott Jr. 0-1, Gulley III 0-2, Madden 0-2). Fouled Out_Gulley III. Rebounds_South Carolina 40 (Kacinas 10), Arkansas 24 (Clarke 5). Assists_South Carolina 10 (Notice 3), Arkansas 11 (Madden 4). Total Fouls_South Carolina 20, Arkansas 28.