Late USC Comeback Falls Short Against Auburn
Just one week ago, the Gamecocks appeared headed toward a disastrous season, having started conference play 0-4 and being blown out in three of those games. With surprise wins over Arkansas and Mississippi State, Carolina suddenly had a chance to climb back into contention in the tough SEC. However, a loss would put the Gamecocks three games under .500 without much time to make up the difference.
Coming in, Auburn seemed like the perfect opponent for Carolina. The Tigers are 13-3 at home but 0-6 when they leave The Plains. However, Auburn saw in the Gamecocks a struggling team that provided an opportunity to come up with that elusive first road win, especially considering the road team has won the last five games between these two squads.
Both teams came out on fire, and the Gamecocks raced out to a 20-13 lead after just seven minutes of play. Both teams scored from all over the court; on dunks, jump shots, and three pointers. Both teams came back to earth soon after, and the game started to resemble a typical Gamecocks basketball game. "For the life of me, I do not know what happened defensively in the first seven minutes," Coach Dave Odom wondered aloud after the game. "They made some really nice offensive adjustments from their last game to this game, but they didn't do anything that we hadn't seen in some other games."
The three point shot was a major part of Carolina's early attack, as they hit five of eight treys en route to a 26-21 lead. However, the Gamecocks missed their next five attempts from downtown. Despite this, Carolina was able to take a 35-28 lead with 2:16 to play when Chad Gray made his first career basket. Gray, who did not play in the last two games and played just one minute against Tennessee, was fouled on the play and added the free throw. However, Auburn stormed back with consecutive three point shots to go into halftime trailing just 35-34.
Because of the run, Carolina did not have the luxury of playing the second half with the lead. The second half started much like the first, with both teams hitting every shot in sight. Auburn jumped out and took the lead, enabling the Tigers to play with the lead. Evaldus Baniulis seemed to single-handedly keep the Gamecocks in the game. He hit three straight triples for 9 of the first 11 Gamecock points on his way to a career-high 21 points. Despite these heroics, which had the fans shouting "I love you, Evka!" Auburn led 55-50 when the teams paused for the under 12 timeout.
Rebounding has been the Gamecocks' Achilles' heel all season, and Auburn took full advantage, out rebounding Carolina 38-19. The rebounding edge was the key to three plays that ultimately cost Carolina the game. Leading just 59-54, Auburn's Korvortney Barber made a layup and drew a foul. He missed the free throw, but Carolina was called for a lane violation. Barber, who led the Tigers with 16 points, missed his second try, but the Tigers got the offensive rebound and made a layup. Suddenly, Carolina was down by 9 points. "It almost got away from us," Odom said.
The Gamecocks managed to get back within 5 points, 67-62 with 2:50 remaining when the rebounding reared its head again. Frank Tolbert made a steal and drew an intentional foul as he drove the basket. Tolbert made both free throws and the got open on the inbounds play. He missed the layup, but Barber soared in for the follow dunk, giving Auburn another four-point play.
Some of the fans began to head toward the exits, but Carolina refused to give in. Behind the three point shooting of seniors Bryce Sheldon, Tre Kelley, and Brandon Wallace, the Gamecocks took advantage of missed free throws by Auburn to storm back within two points, 75-73, with 36 seconds remaining in the game. "They made some incredible shots in the last couple minutes to cut the lead," said Auburn coach Jeff Lebo. "Evka Baniulis was incredible tonight shooting."
Auburn's Quantez Robertson went to the line to try to ice the game, but he missed both free throws. The second attempt bounced to the left, and Tolbert swooped in from behind the three point line to knock the ball out of bounds off of Wallace. Tolbert then took the inbounds pass and sank two free throws, icing the game.
"It really came down to one possession," Odom mused. "We've got four guys on the line and they've got one, and they end up with the ball. When you see that, you know it's not your night. [It] took the steam out of us. To have that opportunity and not take advantage of it is truly disappointing."
- Carolina attempted 31 three point shots and 31 two point shots. They shot 47% inside the arc and 44% behind the arc. Auburn was 8-16 from long range.
- As a result of all the jump shots, Carolina took just 5 free throws, making 4. Auburn took 26, making 16, though many of the attempts came when the Gamecocks were intentionally fouling.
- Attendance was noticeably better than a week ago. An eyeball count suggested that 8,000-9,000 fans came out, still well short of the announced crowd of over 12,000. The fans really made their presence felt during the comeback. "I thought they were supportive and encouraging, particularly as we made our run at the end," said Odom.
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