South Carolina guard Tre Kelly scored the last of his game-best 23 points on a driving layup at 1:04, and forward Archie Dominique added three free throws in the final minute for the margin of 66-63 victory over Mississippi State. A crowd of 7,936 at Humphrey Coliseum saw the Gamecocks win a second-straight SEC game on the week and improve to 2-4, 12-7 overall.
But what they were really watching was their Bulldog team show a lack of energy, emotion, and efficiency. State fell to 2-4 SEC and 11-8 overall. Thanks to losses elsewhere in the loop the Dogs are still in the thick of the West chaos with no Division team owning a winning record. Yet the wasted chances to take the top spot sting.
"We had a bad loss," guard Jamont Gordon said. "In this league there's no sorry teams, anybody can get beat any night. We didn't play hard like we usually do here tonight."
Certainly not as hard as they had in Wednesday's 70-67 home loss to top-ranked and league-leading Florida. The Bulldogs did play well enough in short spurts to lead by a dozen points, twice, in the first half and seven early in the second. Just not well enough over 40 minutes to take care business and even the conference record, much less take over top spot.
"We've just got to learn how to come out every night and play our best," forward Charles Rhodes said. "If we can play every night like we did against Florida and Tennessee we can beat these teams. Because South Carolina wasn't supposed to beat us tonight."
Rhodes' coach had a slightly different perspective, if the same disappointment. "Give South Carolina a lot of credit," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "Dave (Odom) had his team more prepared to play than ours. They came in here high, I thought they played awful well."
None better than Kelly. The SEC's third-leading scorer was first-rate on this road trip, not just in total scoring but how and when he made baskets. His four-point play after the Gamecocks went down by 12 points the first time kept the Bulldogs from taking control of the evening. His buzzer-beating layup kept South Carolina within a point at halftime. And with the scoreboard knotted 61-61 and the shot clock winding down, Kelly slashed to the basket and looped in an unblockable attempt for a lead the Gamecocks didn't lose.
For good SC-measure the senior added six assists and four rebounds in his 36 minutes, only leaving the court in the first half with a hurting leg. He played the whole second period. "He's the best, hardest, most difficult scoring point guard in this league to defend," Stansbury said. "He just does so many things. You make a mistake and he makes you pay."
"He's quick, but he comes off a lot of screens," guard Ben Hansbrough said. "They set everything up for him." For good reason. Kelly had more help than usual this time out, too, with skinny center Brandon Wallace using all his senior expertise to collect ten points and 16 of Carolina's 37 rebounds with a pair of blocks. Forward Dwayne Day came off the bench for 15 points and a couple of treys.
"They had some other guys jump up and make some shots, too," Stansbury said. "Day in particular, he was a big difference in the game." So was Gamecock proficiency at the charity stripe with 16-of-19 accuracy. All five of Archie's free throws came under last-half pressure; coming in he was 4-of-8 at the stripe in SEC games.
Gordon led State with 16 points, while Hansbrough had 11 off the bench and starter Rhodes 10. But sub-guard Barry Stewart, the team's second-leading scorer, went 0-of-8 from the floor and missed five three-point attempts. "That's a first," Stansbury said for his standout freshman. But few Dogs were sharp shooters this game, certainly not after the first dozen minutes when State had scored 29 points and were at their best. What happened afterwards, no Dog could fully explain.
"We had it going for us, we were making shots and playing good," Gordon said. "Then we relaxed on them and they started making plays."
Stansbury might have had the better summary, though. "Everybody is good in the is league, if you have an off-night you get beat. That's what happened to us."
The Dogs didn't look so off too early. There was a lead-change each of the first five minutes, the Gamecocks going in front for their last time at 7-6 on a transition bucket by Archie. But when Carolina switched into a zone Gordon busted it with a three-pointer, and after a mis-played lob on SC's end the Bulldogs got downcourt quickly enough for Rhodes to dunk off the entry pass and put State up 11-9 at the first media timeout.
Gordon was the only starter still on-court after the break and he drove for a banker, followed by a Hansbrough reverse-layup. The Gamecocks turned the ball over consecutive trips and each time State cashed in with Slater and Hansbrough each banging home threeballs for a 21-12 lead and South Carolina timeout. With the Bulldogs now zoning the Gamecocks fired up a series of trey-tries that all missed. Baskets by Reginald Delk and Hansbrough pushed the lead to 26-14 midway of the half.
"That was a big part of the game, we could have put them away right there," Gordon said.
But the Gamecocks steadied behind Kelly, who manufactured a three-point play, a couple of free throws, and a slick move-and-layup for seven quick points. That freed Day and Archie to connect on three baskets and cut State's advantage to 31-27 at 4:23 when Stansbury stopped play for a talk. Gordon was left open for a made-trey but Day did even better, drawing a foul from Richard Delk as his longball swished. The four-point play at 2:26. When the Bulldogs failed to get a good shot off before halftime Kelly beat the buzzer for a layup that had the Gamecocks within 36-35 at intermission. "They got back in and got it close and kept it close, and played with confidence," said Stansbury. Wallace certainly showed it one minute into the second half, hitting a trey for a 38-38 tie. Reginald Delk got the lead back for MSU with a second-chance trey and Gordon turned a steal into a blind bounce-back pass for a Rhodes dunk. Day also picked up his fourth personal three minutes into the period.
Rhodes stayed active, dunking off a post-feed, stuffing a Sheldon shot, and muscling through two defenders for a layup. After he blocked Brandis Raley's short jumper center Vernon Goodridge was good on the baseline and State was up 51-44. But the Bulldogs didn't come close to delivering the knockout.
"We never could separate the game in the second half," Stansbury said. "It seemed every time they'd make a big play or a big shot." Or free throws, which were critical to this comeback around a rebound basket by Wallace. At 9:15 he beat the Dog defense downcourt for a dunk and SC's first lead since 17:00 of the opening period. Both teams went cold, settling for missing long shots or blocking shorter attempts. Or, throwing the ball away at each end.
At 5:14 Reginald Delk was able to slip in for a layup, State's first field goal in nine whole minutes, to re-tie things 57-57. But with the ball back after a Rhodes turnover Kelly worked the clock, the defense, and popped a go-ahead jumper. Rhodes had a layup roll the wrong way, and Day didn't for a 61-57 Gamecock lead that had Stansbury calling time.
"A step inside the arc guard Dietric Slater was good. The Gamecocks lost the ball twice, on a shot-clock violation and Kelly turnover, and Slater went to the stripe for two shots and a 61-61 tie with 90 seconds left. Again it was Kelly taking charge, sliding right down the lane for a looping lay-in. Stewart missed a try for the lead and Slater rebounded but lost his dribble and the Dogs had to foul. Archie helped out by only making one free shot for a 64-61 difference, and Rhodes got the layup to go at 14 seconds.
Archie was fouled at 0:12.3 and this time converted both chances for a three-point lead, which proved the final margin as Slater's bomb clanked wide-right. South Carolina knocked the rebound out so State had a last chance to force overtime with 3.9 ticks left but Gordon had to force it over two defenders from the right corner and was long.
"We didn't show up and play our best, and that's what happens when you don't," Stansbury said. State also had some interesting lineups on the court during the last half, often without Hansbrough. The freshman had scored 11 points in the first half; he got nothing in the second and took only one shot. "That was the only shot that came to me," he said.
Team-wise, the Bulldogs have had plenty of shots at beating SEC teams at home or away. All have missed, and their last three league losses have come by a total of ten points. The last six losses, in an eight-game stretch, have been by an average of less than five points.
"We've lost so many games by so close, that's what hurts the most," Rhodes said. "We can't pull it in at the end."
The end of the schedule is still a long ways off. But even this early in the league campaign Stansbury knows the number of opportunities to gain ground in the standings, as well as impress post-season selectors, is shrinking weekly. The West may yet be won by somebody, anybody who can squeak out a win over break-even. But State is already two home losses off that pace.
"Any time you lose at home it doesn't help. It's a long way to play, but you sure don't like losing at home because it's so difficult to go on the road and win."
The Bulldogs now do go on the road to a most difficult place, playing at rival Ole Miss and doing so on Tuesday evening with a shorter than usual turnaround. "We'll have to get ourselves back up," Stansbury said.
"We have to go somewhere and get a road win," said Gordon. "We just have to do it."