Flip the records back 18 years to find the last time South Carolina went through a stretch as daunting as the kind the Gamecocks wrapped Saturday with a 70-63 loss to No. 14 Texas Tech at Colonial Life Arena.
From Jan. 26 through Feb. 5, 2000, USC, then coached by Eddie Fogler, faced four straight ranked opponents – No. 20 Vanderbilt, No. 11 Tennessee, No. 12 Florida, No. 14 Kentucky – and came away with four losses by a combined 25 points.
Nearly two decades later, the Frank Martin-led Gamecocks (13-8, 4-4 SEC) are in better standing after splitting games with the Red Raiders, No. 20 Gators, No. 21 Volunteers and No. 18 Wildcats.
“That we’re pretty close to becoming a good team,” Martin said Saturday when asked for what he’s learned about Carolina since tipping with UK on Jan. 16. “We’re not there yet. We’re close.”
Reasons for optimism have emerged in Columbia lately:
▪ Chris Silva, who scored at least 14 points Saturday for the seventh time in nine games, is a legitimate All-SEC candidate and a “pro,” according to Texas Tech coach Chris Beard.
▪ Wes Myers, despite his forgetful performance against the Red Raiders, has flashed greatness at the point guard position.
▪ Justin Minaya and Felipe Haase, a couple freshmen experiencing SEC competition for the first time, have improved since the start of January.
And then there’s USC’s proven ability to overcome poor shooting and still be in position to win games.
“We’re so much better than we were back in December,” Martin said, “it’s not even funny. But we’re not there yet. We’ve let two unbelievable opportunities slip out of our hands here in the last seven days.”
Losses to Texas Tech and Tennessee were mirror images of one another. Both times the Gamecocks struggled to close out their high-caliber opponents, allowing frenzied atmospheres at CLA to go silent at the final horn.
What Martin saw in the Red Raiders and Volunteers is what he’s still trying to develop with USC. Texas Tech leaned on senior Keenan Evans, a three-year starter at point guard, for 31 points, including 21 in the second half. Tennessee, which got 25 points off the bench from redshirt sophomore Lamonte Turner, is “arguably the most experienced team in the SEC,” according to Martin.
South Carolina’s newness was evident over the final 6:17 Saturday when the Gamecocks were outscored 17-5. USC missed nine of 11 shots.
“We came out of timeouts,” Martin said, “and we drew up two different things we were trying to run coming down the stretch there and both times the guys off the ball executed and the guys with the ball went to the wrong place. And that’s on me. And for us not to be able to execute at the end of the game, that’s on me. I obviously have to do a better job there.
“But it wasn’t like some play I just drew up. It was something we practiced, something we’ve rehearsed and we just didn’t ... That was my biggest thing. The last couple years I’ve been used to calling a timeout at the end of a game and being able to execute and try to get to the shot we want to get.”
Martin called timeout with 1:57 to go after USC’s lead, once as large as five points, was gone. Down 62-61, Carolina’s next possession ended with Myers missing a deep 3 as the shot clock ticked down to zero.
The Gamecocks then gave up an offensive rebound on the other end.
“They came out around the 6-minute mark and started playing a lot harder than us,” Minaya said. “We didn’t rise to their toughness.”
USC next hosts Mississippi State (15-6, 3-5) on Wednesday.
The Bulldogs are No. 1 in the SEC in scoring defense.
“Can’t have empty possessions coming down the stretch,” Martin said. “I’ve got to figure out a way of what I want to run, so we don’t continue to have these bad three minutes against teams that defend like Tennessee, like Texas Tech, teams that get after us and really, really hound us and are athletic.
“We have to be able to run something so we can score a basket in the last three minutes to give ourselves a chance to win.”