As Bruce Ellington rolled to his left around a screen and rose up for a three-point shot with 52 seconds left, the entire crowd in the Colonial Life Arena took a deep breath. As it went through the basket, the crowd erupted as the Gamecocks took a 61-55 lead and that would prove to be the difference in a 64-60 victory over the Clemson Tigers to snap 6-game losing streak.
Ellington finished with a team-high 14 points with four rebounds, two assists, and six turnovers.
"I always feel good when he has the basketball," Gamecock head coach Darrin Horn said. "He's a guy that's capable of making big shots. Nobody wants it more than he does."
You would think that would put the game away, but as had been the case all evening, the Tigers tried to come back.
Demontez Stitt was sent to the line on the following possession and made the first to make it 61-56. The second one was off, but the ball went out of bounds off the Gamecocks and the Tigers called timeout. Stitt scored on the ensuing play to cut it to 61-58 and the Tigers fouled Ellington with 32 seconds left. Ellington made one of two to make it a two possession game again. Stitt turned the ball over and Malik Cooke came up with it and was fouled.
Cooke missed both of them and Ramon Galloway inexcusably fouled Andre Young to stop the clock with 16 seconds left. Young nailed both of them and the Tigers were right back in the game, trailing 62-60. Muldrow was fouled with 13 seconds left with a chance to all but ice it. Sam Muldrow calmly nailed both and the Gamecocks held on for the 64-60 win.
"I'm happy for our fans," Horn said. "I know how important this game is to Gamecock Nation. I'm especially happy for Sam Muldrow and Johndre Jefferson (two seniors)- Sam in particular. I think in rivalry games the rivalry should be back and forth and for Sam to be a part of breaking that streak is something that is really good and I'm very happy for him. The thing was this team that is most encouraging is that we're finding different ways (to win)- this was a game we didn't get to play to our strength."
Muldrow had what Gamecock fans hope to be his break-out performance in the 2010 season. Muldrow finished with a season-high 13 points - making all four free throw attempts - and pulled down five rebounds. Muldrow's biggest impact on the game was on the other end of the court. Muldrow rejected five Tiger shots - marking the third consecutive game he's had at least three blocks - and altered several other shots.
"It meant something to them (seniors) and I think they played like it," Horn said. "A lot of times - it sounds cliche - but it kind of comes down to who wants it more. I think Sam was ultimately the difference in the game. We had a bunch of guys make some key plays, but Sam's presence was huge and it was from start to finish - the blocked shots, the key jumper on the baseline, getting fouled and knocking down the key free throws, and a big rebound late. We're really happy with the way he played."
The first half was a half of runs. Ellington scored five early points as the Gamecocks used a 9-0 run early on to jump out to a 9-2 lead, finished with a Cooke steal and dunk that forced the Tigers to take a timeout. The Tigers would battle back later in the half with a 10-0 run to grab a 23-20 lead as the Gamecocks went on a 6:00 drought that was finally ended by a Brian Richardson layup.
"There were times where we moved the ball better and got the shots we wanted and they just didn't go down," Horn said of the slump. "They did a good job of pressuring in the half court and we sort of stopped and became stagnant. We (also) had a bunch of easy ones that just did not fall."
The two teams would battle back and forth the rest of the half, with Young hitting a jumper as time expired for the Tigers as the Gamecocks took a 34-31 lead into the locker room.
After a Cooke basket to open the second half, Jerai Grant hit a jumper and two free throws to pull the Tigers to within one, but Muldrow nailed a three-pointer from the left elbow to give the Gamecocks a 39-35 lead. That was followed up by Galloway throwing the ally-oop to Lakeem Jackson, who then stole the inbounds pass and dished it to Cooke for the layup to push the lead to 43-35.
Demontez Stitt answered with a three-pointer from the corner to pull the Tigers to within five. After a technical against Galloway - that was questionable at best - Tanner Smith knocked down both free throws to cut the lead to three. Devin Booker was fouled on the ensuing possession and hit both free throws to cut it right back to one point at 43-42 with just under 12 minutes remaining.
"He was doing a chin-up on the rim and nobody else was around him," Horn said of the explanation he received on the technical with a shrug.
After a driving Richardson layup, Young hit another three-pointer to tie the game at 45-45, but Jackson got a rebound off a Richardson miss and put it in to give the Gamecocks the lead right back. A Galloway jumper pushed the lead back out to four.
The Gamecocks would push the lead out to six at 52-46, but it would be nip and tuck the rest of the way. The Tigers answered with baskets from Grant and Tanner Smith. The Tigers would have multiple opportunities to tie the game or take the lead, but were unable to do so. Muldrow hit a jumper on the right baseline with under four minutes to play to stretch the lead back to four, but Milton Jennings answered immediately with a tip-in to cut the lead to 54-52 with less than four minutes remaining.
Muldrow hit two big free throws to push the lead back to four, but Jennings again answered with another tip-in to cut it back to two with two minutes to play. Ellington hit a floater to push the lead back to four and Young had a pass go right through his hands and out of bounds with 1:36 left in the game. The Tigers forced Ellington into a turnover that Young came up with and was fouled going up for a layup by Ellington. Young was only able to hit one of two, setting up Ellington's and Muldrow's heroics in the final minute.
Jackson finished with a steady performance, scoring six points, six rebounds, four assists, and three steals.
"He's a winner," Horn said. "That's why he was our cornerstone recruit and first guy we signed. He's a winner and the kind of guy you want on your team. The numbers don't always show it but he's big for our team every night."
For Horn, it was his first win over the Tigers in his three-year tenure at Carolina.
"It's not another game on the schedule," Horn said. "It's more than that. I didn't feel any pressure, personally, because this isn't about me. I really wanted it for Sam and Johndre, especially. Six in a row is just not a rivalry. That's a pounding and we needed to stop that. I'm more happy for our seniors and players."
The win continues a recent domination of the Tigers that began over the summer in Omaha, Nebraska where the baseball team beat the Tigers twice on the way to their National Championship. Both soccer teams swept the Tigers in shutout fashion. Despite a loss by the volleyball team to the Tigers, the women's basketball team beat the Tigers just days before the football team's 29-7 win. Tonight's win is the seventh in the last eight meetings between the two schools.
The Gamecocks will take the week off before hosting Wofford next Saturday at the Colonial Life Arena. The Terriers beat the Gamecocks, 68-61, in Spartanburg last season. Tip is set for 7:00 P.M.
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