Gamecocks booted from SEC Tournament
TAMPA, Fla. – For the South Carolina basketball team, Friday's 82-68 loss to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament can be explained very simply – just call it the tale of two halves.
After a strong first half that saw USC take multiple double-digit leads, the Gamecocks could not find an answer for the Bulldogs in the second half, resulting in USC's third loss in the last four games.
"Our defensive intensity was just lagging in the second half. We didn't do a good job of conversion defense, matching, talking, communicating," USC point guard Devan Downey said. "Everything we did in the first half went out the window in the second half."
Strong shooting and a tight clamping defense helped key Carolina to a fast start in the first half. The Gamecocks (21-9) used steals by Dominique Archie and Downey along with hot shooting by Zam Fredrick and Archie to push ahead with an early 14-4 lead.
Down 28-18 with 5:44 left in the first half, the Bulldogs (21-12) began to make a run at Carolina via the three-point shot. Ravern Johnson hit the first shot to pull Mississippi State within seven while back-to-back Kodi Augustus threes made it a four-point game at 31-27.
Fredrick hit a jumper and 3-pointer to go back ahead by seven but the Bulldogs closed out the half with three free throws to whittle the lead down to 36-32 at the half.
"One of things that was important to us heading into this game was getting off to a good start and playing with a lot of energy and defensive intensity. And I thought our guys did a really good job with that and set the tone early on in the game for how we wanted to play and really maintained that throughout the first half," USC coach Darrin Horn said.
That first half intensity would not last for USC as Mississippi State took their first lead of the game on a dunk by Phil Turner with just under 15 minutes left to play. The two teams spent the next five minutes trading baskets and leads before Carolina came out with a 55-52 advantage on a Brandis Raley-Ross layup with 8:56 left to play.
From there it was all Bulldogs as Barry Stewart hit back-to-back 3-pointers, allowing MSU to retake the lead, which they would never give up. Stewart came in to Friday's game averaging 11.9 points per game. By game's end, he had nearly doubled that with 21 points, 18 of which came in the second half.
"I don't know if he got a few open ones, he had his confidence up and next thing you know he was hitting step backs. A few shots he hit were just tough shots. He stepped up and made big shots," Downey said.
Sam Muldrow's tip-in with 3:58 left gave the Gamecocks some hope as they pulled to within three at 64-61. But two free throws by Stewart and another Turner dunk allowed the Bulldogs to take control in the waning moments.
After shooting 41.7 percent from the field in the first half, Carolina only went for 30 percent in the second to give them a 35.5 percent from the field for the game. USC's woes were highlighted by a 5-of-22 performance from the three-point line. In total the Gamecocks threw up 76 shots. Though the loss doesn't totally end USC's hopes of getting into the NCAA Tournament, they are very damaging. Horn is hopeful that his team's regular season résumé will be enough to put them in the Big Dance for the first time since 2004. If USC doesn't make it, they will be the first SEC team with 10 wins in the league to not make the tournament.
"I've been saying for a long time how you don't take one of the top three or four teams from the SEC in the NCAA Tournament," Horn said. "When you go back and look at our overall season, being divisional co-champs in the East, I think that we've proven that we're definitely worthy of that. But those decisions are beyond our control."
- Zam Fredrick led the Gamecock scoring effort with 20 points. He is now 59 points away form 1,000 for his career.
- The 19-point effort by Devan Downey is the third lowest from him this season.
- USC has earned a first-round bye two others times in the SEC Tournament. Both previous times they won their first game.
- In the lone regular season meeting between the two teams, the Gamecocks held a 37-33 advantage at the half and went on to lose 75-70.
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