Never mind what had happened, never mind another gut-wrenching loss was another transition 3-pointer away.
Michael Carrera controlled South Carolina’s destiny with six seconds to go on Saturday, and it was a destiny that needed cement after the foundation began to crumble following two straight losses.
Carrera, as workmanlike a Gamecock that’s ever worn the uniform, repaired it.
The senior forward’s free throw gave the Gamecocks a 73-69 overtime lead, and the advantage held in a must-have win over Florida, edging USC back to the good side of the NCAA tournament bubble and keeping it in clear view of a top-four finish in the SEC.
USC clinched just the sixth .500 or better league season in its 25th year in the conference, and is one win away from giving the NCAA selection committee not a lot to think about.
One more win means USC is no worse than 23-9 after the SEC tournament. That would seem to be a shoo-in for the NCAAs no matter what happens after the 23rd win.
But USC wasn’t thinking of anything but getting the 23rd. And then getting a few more.
“Everybody has bad days,” said Carrera, referencing the last two losses. “Now we’re getting on track for the good days, let’s see what we got on Wednesday.”
Saturday started out a good day and was quickly bad. The Gamecocks led by 17 with seven minutes to play in the first half, a reworked starting lineup and re-discovered aggression to the rim yielding a fluid offense. But as swiftly as USC built the lead, it lost it. The Gators scored 22 unanswered points on 10 of 12 possessions and eked ahead.
“Our guys, we were vulnerable,” coach Frank Martin said. “That same spirit we had to start the game started breaking.”
Martin regrouped the team and turned to his upperclassmen. After opening all jobs and reverting to a Day 1 approach in practice this week, Martin asked his veterans a simple question. Why, after slogging through three years of losing, would they quit fighting now with success so close?
Carrera, Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell took over the final eight minutes, the lead see-sawing on nearly every possession as Florida (17-10, 8-6 SEC) kept finding open 3-pointers or transition buckets. The Gamecocks’ offense lurched and stalled, but they were still in position in the final minute of regulation.
Chris Chiozza rose for a jumper but Carrera deflected it, Laimonas Chatkevicius grabbing the rebound and spying Thornwell racing downcourt. Chatkevicius, starting for the first time since late January, fired a one-arm fastball to the streaking Thornwell, who slammed it home for a 64-63 lead with 31 seconds to go.
Dorian Finney-Smith, who brutalized USC (22-5, 9-5) with 18 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and two blocks, missed the front end of two free throws and the Gamecocks couldn’t get a shot off in regulation. Chatkevicius, who was so thrilled to be back in the starting lineup that he’d mass-texted the entire team telling them how excited he was to help, took a deep breath.
With his mother watching him play for the first time in college, Chatkevicius had been horrendous. He couldn’t buy a shot from the field despite several open looks (4-of-14) and had even back-rimmed a transition dunk.
“You feel like the team’s counting on you. Lately, they haven’t been going in,” he said. “I would just screw up myself.”
He picked a great time to reverse the skid, sinking USC’s first two baskets of overtime around a Devin Robinson make and a Chiozza 3. With USC trailing by one with 2:42 to go, Notice badly missed a 3 but USC rebounded, with Carrera fouled.
Exhausted as he was, the senior made both free throws for a 70-69 lead. John Egbunu couldn’t get a clean look against and missed, leading to another foul and two shots for Thornwell.
He made both, Chiozza missed a 3 and Carrera rebounded with a foul. The only shot he needed to make splashed and the Gamecocks had answered Tuesday’s shocking loss at Missouri.
“Unbelievable gut-check by our guys,” Martin said. “I told them, ‘If we can perform and be enthused about each other, then you’re going to reinforce what you should already know – that we’re a good basketball team.’”
Back-to-back 3-pointers from Carrera and Thornwell answered Florida each time it was about to put the game away in regulation.
Star of the game: Carrera scored 20 with 15 rebounds, three blocks and three steals. As dragging as he was in the extra five minutes, he still made his free throws.
Play of the game: Thornwell’s dunk will be highlighted on the next pre-game intro video. Another vicious slam, it punctuated USC’s rally.
Stat of the game: USC had 17 offensive rebounds and 15 second-chance points. That was after the Gators had 15 offensive boards and 11 second-chance points to help them erase the 17-point lead.
FROM THE BASELINE
Forgotten: Never seen a 17-point lead be erased so quickly. I was about to file that in a new chapter of USC basketball misery.
But a funny thing happened on the way to deadline …
One: I’m not on the NCAA committee, and nobody knows for sure what is and isn’t a sure lock for the tournament.
It’s really hard for me to think the Gamecocks wouldn’t get in with no worse than a 23-9 record after Nashville. One more win gives them that.
Who: Tennessee at South Carolina
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
TV: SEC Network
Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState
SOUTH CAROLINA 73, FLORIDA 69 (OT)
FLORIDA (17-10): Hill 0-4 0-0 0, Allen 3-8 3-3 9, Finney-Smith 6-16 3-4 18, Egbunu 2-6 1-2 5, Leon 2-5 0-0 4, Francis-Ramirez 0-2 0-0 0, Robinson 6-11 2-2 17, Chiozza 4-11 0-0 11, Hayes 1-2 3-4 5, Rimmer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-65 12-15 69.
SOUTH CAROLINA (22-5): Thornwell 5-15 6-6 17, Notice 2-5 0-0 5, Chatkevicius 6-16 0-0 13, Carrera 6-19 4-6 20, Kacinas 6-10 2-2 14, Stroman 2-2 0-2 4, Gregory 0-0 0-0 0, Dozier 0-2 0-0 0, McKie 0-0 0-0 0, Silva 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-69 12-16 73.
Halftime—Florida 33-30. End Of Regulation—Tied 64. 3-Point Goals—Florida 9-32 (Robinson 3-6, Finney-Smith 3-8, Chiozza 3-9, Hill 0-1, Francis-Ramirez 0-2, Allen 0-3, Leon 0-3), South Carolina 7-19 (Carrera 4-8, Thornwell 1-2, Chatkevicius 1-3, Notice 1-4, Kacinas 0-2). Fouled Out—Egbunu. Rebounds—Florida 42 (Finney-Smith 13), South Carolina 39 (Carrera 15). Assists—Florida 19 (Hill 7), South Carolina 17 (Notice 8). Total Fouls—Florida 18, South Carolina 14. A—18,000.