It would have been predictable to fail. South Carolina has done that – and done that, and done that – so much this season that when a 13-point lead was sliced to six at halftime, and a two-possession second-half lead became two points with nine minutes to play, it seemed to be re-reading the same dreadful script.
But the Gamecocks have learned. Matured. Realized why they lost and corrected the mistakes.
And won once more at the end of the season.
USC (16-15) held off Missouri 63-54 in the first round of the SEC tournament on Wednesday, advancing for the second straight year and giving their postseason hopes a stronger base. If USC doesn’t go to the NIT or CBI, it has clinched no worse than a .500 finish, which would be the first non-losing season the program has had in six years.
The Gamecocks know it. But they don’t want to put a limit on themselves – they won, again, at the SEC tournament. They’re having fun.
“The season didn’t go as well as we planned, but at the end of the day, we still got a chance to play tomorrow,” senior Ty Johnson said. “That’s all that matters.”
USC will play sixth seed Ole Miss (20-11) at approximately 9:30 p.m. on Thursday. The Rebels, who whipped the Gamecocks 65-49 on Jan. 10, are trying to sew up an NCAA tournament berth. It’s similar to what Arkansas was trying to do last year.
USC won that game 71-69. Under Frank Martin, the Gamecocks have won two more SEC tournament games (three total) than they did in the combined six years before he arrived. They’ve won three of their last four this year and five of nine. Something seems to have clicked. Another chance to prove it – and perhaps knock another team from the NCAA tournament – awaits on Thursday.
“But like I told the guys in the locker room, we have been in that same situation many times in conference play and instead of protecting the lead, we figured out a way to give it away,” Martin said. “And every time they closed the gap, somebody would step up and make a play offensively, make a play defensively, to give us life.”
Sindarius Thornwell broke an SEC season-long shooting slump to score 18 points, including four 3-pointers. Michael Carrera had 12 and six rebounds, supplying relentless energy even when in foul trouble. Four others scored at least five points each, and Johnson, playing one of the worst games of his career, still found a way to make an impact.
The Gamecocks’ only senior spoke of saving his best for last. He scored double figures in each of his last three games, then made his SEC tournament debut on Wednesday and – stunk.
Johnson bricked his first seven shots. He had two turnovers and couldn’t solve the Tigers’ rangy athletes who were taking away his attack-the-rim game. If this was leaving it on the floor, he’d just as soon have left it against Mississippi State two weeks ago, when he scored a career-high 28.
The Tigers (9-23) cut the score to 49-47 but USC kept answering. Still, after a Johnathan Williams free throw made it 54-51 with less than six minutes to go, almost everyone could see the collapse coming. That one loss in USC’s last four games was the epic choke against Arkansas – the Gamecocks had prevented it in other games but that one still stung.
Johnson had the ball and hadn’t scored a point. Didn’t matter. “My job was to still be aggressive,” he said.
His driving layup and foul gave the Gamecocks a cushion, and while he missed the free throw, USC took off. Carrera, who had to sit early in the second half with four fouls, stuck his body in front of a charging Tiger and then grabbed a key rebound, Thornwell swished another 3 and the Gamecocks pulled away.
Martin and the rest of the team told Johnson to keep being himself, keep playing his game. They never sensed him wavering.
“He’s a senior. He knows what to do,” Carrera said. “He’s the leader of the team. We trust him.”
“I didn’t have to tell him anything,” Martin said. “He understands that he doesn’t have too many of these left.”USC ended with 17 assists on 21 buckets, overcoming a lack of interior game with stellar outside shooting. The Gamecocks were pummeled on the glass – Missouri had 15 offensive rebounds – but they survived another late opponent run, and advanced.
Martin was asked what the difference was between the start of the SEC season and now. It’s the second straight year that the Gamecocks have played their best basketball at the end.
“Mentally,” Martin answered. “We’re in a good place right now. We’ve started worrying about all the things that matter and not the things that don’t matter.”
NOTE: The Gamecocks haven’t been used to having a full-as-possible roster, so it was no surprise when they announced before tipoff that they were once again down to nine players. Sophomore Reggie Theus was unavailable due to a concussion.
Theus played three minutes in the regular-season finale but otherwise had only played six minutes over the previous 18 games.
Williams III 2-10 4-8 9, Isabell 1-5 0-0 2, Allen 0-1 0-0 0, Wright 3-9 1-1 8, Rosburg 3-4 3-4 9, Bello 0-2 0-0 0, Gill-Caesar 3-7 3-4 10, Shamburger 1-3 3-3 6, Gant 3-5 0-0 6, Post 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 18-50 14-20 54.
SOUTH CAROLINA (16-15)
Thornwell 5-9 4-6 18, Johnson 1-8 1-3 3, Notice 3-8 1-1 9, Chatkevicius 3-6 0-0 6, Carrera 4-7 3-5 12, Stroman 0-2 5-5 5, McKie 1-1 0-0 2, Kacinas 4-5 0-0 8. Totals 21-46 14-20 63.
Halftime_South Carolina 30-24. 3-Point Goals_Missouri 4-16 (Shamburger 1-1, Williams III 1-4, Gill-Caesar 1-4, Wright 1-5, Isabell 0-1, Bello 0-1), South Carolina 7-19 (Thornwell 4-7, Notice 2-4, Carrera 1-3, Kacinas 0-1, Johnson 0-4). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Missouri 35 (Williams III 11), South Carolina 26 (Johnson 7). Assists_Missouri 9 (Shamburger 4), South Carolina 17 (Thornwell 6). Total Fouls_Missouri 17, South Carolina 15.