For the third straight time, South Carolina had a chance to grab its first SEC win of the season. For the third straight time, the Gamecocks fell one step short, this time falling to Ole Miss 75-74 on Saturday afternoon.
For the first hour, spirits were high in Columbia, as the Gamecocks went into halftime sporting a 37-27 lead. That, along with Steve Spurrier's halftime speech, suggested that Gamecock fans might leave the Colonial Life Arena feeling good about the status of the university's two major sports programs. Instead, the Gamecocks conceded 48 points in the final 20 minutes to the Rebels, falling to 0-4 in the SEC so far this season, tied for last place with the Auburn Tigers.
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In the frontcourt, the story of the game was Sindarius Thornwell, who scored 24 points and added 11 rebounds (5 offensive) and four assists in 37 minutes. Thornwell bore the brunt of using almost 30% of USC's possessions (five of those were turnovers), but since the rest of the Gamecock squad couldn't be more efficient using fewer possessions, it fell to the freshmen to carry the team. He nearly carried it to victory.
His fellow freshman Jaylen Shaw contributed 8 points in 22 minutes, and also added six rebounds and three steals against only two turnovers. Shaw looked as confident as he has all season, and could be primed to step into a bigger role with the absence of Tyrone Johnson.
Brenton Williams had his worst game of the season, going 0-10 from the field (though 9-9 from the line). Interestingly despite some folks saying this team is too young to know how to win close games, it was the senior's struggles that kept Carolina from coming out on top. The other backcourt player that really struggled in this game was Duane Notice, who sat out most of the first half with foul trouble. In 20 minutes, he was 2-5 shooting and did hand out four assists, but his turnover struggles continued with four of those as well.
The Gamecocks came out with a re-vamped front line on Saturday, starting Laimonas Chatkevicius and Desmond Ringer over regular starters Demetrius Henry and Mindaugas Kacinas, and last year's returning starter Michael Carrera. None of the five played particularly well on the afternoon, with Chatkevicius leading the way with 12 points on 6-7 shooting (though his four turnovers sucked a lot of the usefulness out of those numbers). His co-starter, Desmond Ringer, struggled to involve himself, going 0-3 with 2 points and only 1 defensive rebound in 12 minutes of action.
This was the sort of game that Carolina could've survived without great interior play, given the Rebels' penchant for zone defense and lack of a dominant offensive frontcourt, and they nearly did. Carolina ended up with nine extra possessions (-1 in turnovers, +10 in offensive rebounds) against Ole Miss, but the Rebels out-shot Carolina 48-42% in eFG (led by a 57-41% lead in 2s) and 76-67% from the line. The Gamecocks out-played Ole Miss overall, but couldn't convert enough to make it count.
The Rebels were led by Anthony Perez, who scored 22 points on 5-9 shooting from the field (10-12 from the line), as well as their regular scorers - Marshall Henderosn with 19 (though on a woeful 5-17 from the field) and Jarvis Summers (5-9 from the field, 9-13 from the line). No other Rebel scored more than four points. The Gamecocks played relatively well defensively on the evening, though they caught a bit of luck by the fact that Ole Miss took a lot of 3s (43% of their shots from the field) despite the fact their offense was excelling inside, as nearly every offense has against Carolina this season (they shot 57% from 2, 24% from 3).
Ultimately, any number of things could've broken Carolina's way to make this game a win - if Duane Notice doesn't step on the sideline and finishes, that's a four-point swing (since he likely doesn't draw the technical that gave Ole Miss two points). Any of Brenton Williams' 10 misses falling changes the outcome. Such are close games.
Last year, the Gamecocks played 19 conference games, 10 of which were blowouts (games decided by 10 or more; they were 1-9 in such contests). They went 3-6 in their close games. This season, they've played four games so far - none of them easy, by the way - and are 0-4, but with only one real blowout loss, and even in that game, they showed marked improvement over last year's result.
Losing isn't fun, but the team has clearly taken a step forward from last season, and looks primed to take another such step again next year when they only lose Brenton Williams but add two top 200 recruits. This team is also dealing with losing their only two upperclassmen that play point guard due to injury and the NFL. The Gamecocks saw 14,000 people pour into Colonial Life Arena on Saturday and they gave Ole Miss everything they could handle. Stick with them. Better times are ahead.