In their last five games, the Gamecocks have scored either more than one point a possession or held their opponents to under one point a possession. The problem is, they still haven't done both of those things in the same game.
And so it was again on Saturday, with the Carolina defense letting it down, allowing the Tigers to score 1.22 points per trip, as Missouri down the Gamecocks 82-74. The Tigers jumped out to an 11-0 lead early on, and the lead stayed at double-digits basically the rest of the game, with a late surge helped on by the three-point shooting of Brenton Williams (who scored 32 points in a losing effort) bringing the Gamecocks within striking distance, but never truly threatening Missouri.
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Brenton really was the story on offense, shooting 8-16 (7-17 from downtown) and hitting all 9 free throw attempts. Sindarius Thornwell continued to play well, though he's clearly not comfortable allowing his teammates to take on more responsibility (can you blame him?), using a shocking 41% of possessions in his 24 minutes while only scoring 14 points, with five turnovers in a game where he fouled out.
It was also nice to see two post players contribute, though whether Michael Carrera still qualifies depends on how you want to treat him, as he spent portions of the game out on the wing. Carrera had his best game of the season as well, shooting 5-10 from the floor for 16 points with 11 rebounds (4 offensive) and not turning the ball over once. Laimonas Chatkevicius also played well, scoring 4 points, grabbing 6 rebounds, and adding 2 assists in his 16 minutes on the floor.
While a couple of shooters struggled (Demetrius Henry was 1-6 from the floor; Duane Notice went 1-4), the offense carried enough weight to win. But the Gamecocks couldn't ever really stop Missouri defensively - they didn't force enough turnovers or missed shots. Practically, the Tigers only played six players, and five of them all hit at least 3 field goals from 2-point range. Combined with hot 3-point shooting (8-17 for 47%), there simply weren't enough stops in this game defensively.
It feels weird to suggest that Carolina played well for long stretches, but much like the earlier game in Gainesville, after South Carolina took a big first punch from Missouri, they rallied to basically play even basketball the rest of the way. In their four road games thus far, the Gamecocks have fallen behind by 9 points twice (UGA and Missouri) and 13 points once (Florida) in the first ten minutes of the game before playing basically even basketball the rest of the way (well, maybe not in Athens...). The team needs to find a way to start stronger in its games on the road.
While not many fans seem inclined at this point to make much solace in another loss, the Gamecocks continued to fight despite a tough outing on Wednesday and the loss of their two leaders over the course of the season. This team would soundly beat the group that suited up for Carolina last year, and may well still top their in-conference record in a year where the bottom 8-10 teams or so of the conference have collectively taken a step forward (though the very best teams have also taken a step back).
The Gamecocks move into a portion of the schedule that finds them playing a collection of very winnable games to go along with a stretch of games that will be very difficult to win. Focusing more on the former, Carolina hosts five of the weaker SEC teams ('Bama, A&M, Georgia, Vandy, and Auburn) in the next 6 weeks, while also playing two very winnable road games against Auburn and Mississippi State. A winning record in just those games alone lets them match their SEC record from last season, and of course they can still collect more wins against that schedule and/or grab victories in their tougher games.
The Gamecocks continue to make strides toward becoming a better basketball team. They'll clearly need to take another in the offseason if they want to start competing for postseason basketball berths. But for this year, they just need a win. They stand a good chance of getting one on Wednesday, when Texas A&M visits Columbia. That game tips off at 7pm, and will be carried live on ESPN3.