Hassani Gravett tapped the basketball into his right palm and pushed forward. The South Carolina junior point guard, in his 15th start of the season, aimed his pass to a teammate of significantly less experience.
Ibrahim Famouke Doumbia is a little-used freshman forward from Bamako, Mali. He played five minutes Tuesday in USC’s 70-67 loss to No. 18 Tennessee. With 29 seconds in the first half, Doumbia collected Gravett’s three-quarters-court delivery and dunked with two hands.
Game No. 26 of USC’s trying season was an interesting one. South Carolina (13-13, 4-9 SEC) has now lost six in row for the first time since Frank Martin’s second season, but you couldn’t blame the coach for exhausting his resources.
Just 17 seconds into the second half – and the Gamecocks down four – Maik Kotsar picked up his fourth foul. Felipe Haase already had three. Chris Silva had two. Martin had to dig through his roster for unique combinations normally reserved for light nonconference action – not a game against the SEC’s second-place team.
Doumbia scored a career-high three points. Khadim Gueye logged 13 minutes. Jason Cudd was out there for 14.
And yet USC was down one point with under 30 seconds remaining. A 3-point attempt by Justin Minaya came up short at the buzzer, denying Carolina overtime.
“Today we played well enough to win,” Martin said.
USC, a “hurt team” after Saturday’s blowout loss to Florida, was tied with Tennessee (19-6, 9-4) at the 18:29 mark of the second half. Evan Hinson, a 38 percent shooter, hit a long jumper to make it 40-all.
The Volunteers, a bunch pegged as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA’s initial bracket preview, tried to take over from there. A 6-0 run put life back into the orange-clad crowd of 13,126 at Thompson-Boling Arena. After a Gravett 3 cut the UT advantage to 48-45 with 13:04 left, the Vols went on an 8-0 run.
A three-point play from Grant Williams put Tennessee up 14 with 10:01 left.
“We had that lull offensively in the second half,” Martin said, “which then deflated us defensively. We went from being right there to being down 14 or whatever it was. But since we had a little fight in us today, we were able to get some stops and make some conversions on offense and give us a chance.”
Gravett, who was held to under nine points in 12 of his previous 14 games, poured in 12. Gravett assisted a Cudd slam with 7:58 left and then drained a jumper 55 seconds later. Those buckets again got the Gamecocks within four.
A 6-0 run, which included a three minute Volunteer FG drought, got USC to within one with 36 seconds left.
“It just shows that we can be a good team if we just follow what Coach Frank talks about and preaches to us in practice,” said senior guard Frank Booker, who led the Gamecocks with 19 points. “That one, we let it slip away, but we got more games to play.”
Williams, Tennessee’s All-SEC candidate at forward, led all scorers with 22 points. He schooled Cudd in the post with 4:26 left to put the Vols ahead by six. A James Daniel 3-pointer followed for UT.
Williams, who had 14 points in Tennessee’s win over USC on Jan. 20, contributed to USC’s foul trouble Tuesday. The sophomore made eight of nine free throws. He added five rebounds. His short jumper over Silva with 11 seconds left put Tennessee up three.
“I don’t think I needed my college degree to figure out where that ball was going on that possession,” Martin said of Williams’ field goal that cemented the final score. “I could have done without my degree in education, and I still could have figured that out.
“We had a defensive call because we knew they were going in there, that’s why we played behind, and Chris didn’t carry out his defensive assignment. Give Williams credit. He scored it. It’s not like he just turned around and dunked the ball. He turned and scored over a defender.”
Minaya’s game-tying attempt from the right wing was only partially executed to Martin’s liking. The Gamecocks wanted Wes Myers to attack downhill at Minaya’s defender.
“And then Justin just sprint (to the perimeter),” Martin said. “It’s kind of a dribble hand-off, kind of screen.”
Myers, though, took a sideways route with his dribble. “So then Justin ends with a shot three feet farther out than he should have,” Martin said.
South Carolina, which shot over 40 percent for just the fourth time in 13 SEC games, returns to action Saturday when it hosts No. 10 Auburn.