South Carolina and Arkansas went back and forth the entire afternoon on Thursday, but the Gamecocks - after overcoming some ill-timed missed free throws late - held firm defensively to grab a 71-69 victory over the Razorbacks, which sends Carolina to the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. They'll play the four seed, Tennessee, on Friday afternoon. Arkansas saw its NCAA Tournament chances likely fly away with the loss.
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The Gamecocks struggled mightily with turnovers at times, but when they kept the ball they made it count, scoring over 1.5 points on every possession that didn't end in a turnover. That was spurred on primarily by their ability to extend possessions thanks to 23 offensive rebounds, which allowed USC to take 47 field goal attempts and 41 free throw attempts on just 47 possessions where they didn't turn the ball over.
On the other end, Carolina struggled to stop Arkansas inside (the Hogs hit 50% from 2) and couldn't create turnovers, but they avoided getting killed and got somewhat fortunate that the Razorbacks could only bury 3 of their 14 3-point attempts on the afternoon.
Unsurprisingly, Sindarius Thornwell led the Gamecocks in scoring with 17 points, despite spending significant portions of the first half on the bench due to foul trouble. Far more surprisingly was Carolina's second-leading scorer, Laimonas Chatkevicius, who poured in 16 points thanks to a 4-5 day from the field and an 8-10 afternoon from the free throw line, to go along with 7 rebounds (1 offensive) and only one turnover. Duane Notice and Brenton Williams scored 11 and 10 points respectively as Carolina received significant scoring contributions from more than just their guards for one of the few times this season.
The Razorbacks and Gamecocks went back-and-forth early, as they hit 10 minutes to go in the first half tied at 18. Carolina struggled with turnovers early, but three 3-pointers from Sindarius Thornwell, and 8 offensive rebounds, kept the Gamecocks in it on the offensive end.
South Carolina continued to hang with the Razorbacks until late in the second half, where they edged out to a lead despite Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell spending most of the latter stages of the half on the bench due to each player carrying two fouls. The half ended on a weird note when Brian Steele hit a 3-pointer with 20 seconds left on the clock (despite the shot clock being turned off) to put Carolina up 35-29. The Gamecocks stopped the Hogs on the presumed final possession of the half, but Mindaugas Kacinas inexplicably tried to save a ball careening out of bounds off of Arkansas with 1.7 seconds to go. The Razorbacks made the Gamecocks pay by draining a 3 on the last play of the half to bring the deficit to 3 with 20 minutes to go.
The game seemed destined to go down to the wire as neither could gain any separation from the other in the next 10 minutes, with the Gamecocks clinging to a 52-51 lead over the Razorbacks with 10 minutes to go. While Arkansas held Thornwell without any points for the 10 minutes, but field goals from Duane Notice and Laimonas Chatkevicius combined with free throws from Michael Carrera and Brenton Williams kept the Gamecocks afloat.
The game moved to the rims, as neither team could hit a jumper. In fact, from Duane Notice's 2-point jumper at 16:59 until Michael Qualls hit a jumper with 6:30 to go, neither team scored via anything other than a free throw, layup, or dunk. The attacking style of each team put both teams in the bonus with 10 minutes to go, as they barreled toward the game's conclusion neck-and-neck.
Notice picked up his fourth foul which caused Martin to re-insert Brian Steele. Carolina looked lost at times on both sides of the floor but got to the under 8 media timeout down just 3, 59-56. But the Gamecocks kept scoring via layups and free throws to draw back even at 61 with 5:49 to play. A Chatkevicius free throw gave Carolina the lead back, and after Bobby Portis and Brian Steele traded layups, Carolina clung to a 64-63 lead with under four minutes to go.
In the final four minutes, Portis and Chatkevicius traded one free throw for two, but Coty Clarke drained a 3 to give the Hogs a 67-66 lead with 3 minutes remaining. Thornwell missed a floater in the lane and Qualls drove for a layup to put Arkansas up 3 with just 2 minutes left. Chatkevicius worked his away open in the lane yet again, and he hit one free throw before the Gamecocks grabbed the miss. Another foul by the Hogs on Thornwell gave Carolina 2 more free throws, and two makes tied the game at 69 with 1:30 to go.
The Razorbacks forced a 3 by Mardracus Wade, and then inexplicably fouled Brenton Williams when they had him double-teamed in the frontcourt. Brenton's first rimmed out, but drained the second to give the Gamecocks the lead. Arkansas' Rashad Madden missed a jumper that went out of bounds off Arkansas, and USC re-gained possession with the shot clock off. Thornwell missed them both, and Arkansas took possession with 20 seconds to play, as Carolina struggled to hit free throws late despite making 73% on the afternoon.
Arkansas got the ball to Portis for a hook shot that missed, and Michael Carrera grabbed the rebound for Carolina with 2.9 seconds left. Carrera missed the first and made the second, and after an Arkansas timeout, the Razorbacks in-bounded it to Madden, whose buzzer-beating attempt went off the back iron to give the Gamecocks a 71-69 win.