South Carolina hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2004. Auburn hasn't been to the Big Dance since 2003.
In the last few years both athletic departments have made significant efforts to change those facts. South Carolina hired Frank Martin. Auburn hired Bruce Pearl.
On the way to changing both schools basketball fates, the two men with similar sideline demeanors met for the first time ever tonight.
The Gamecocks controlled the game early with their intense, aggressive defense. Gamecock defenders were face-guarding Auburn's key players. The style of defense South Carolina was playing prompted color commentator Joe Dean Jr. to call it the "most impressive, intense defense" he'd seen this season.
Things were going well for South Carolina early. Previously cold in SEC contests, sophomore guard Duane Notice had seven early points while the defense was going to work. South Carolina was making Auburn players put the ball on the floor and beat them. Failing in the halfcourt, the Tigers decided to push it any chance they got. The change in tempo turned the tide for the rest of the half. After a 3-minute scoreless stretch, Auburn got in the game and chipped away at South Carolina's early lead. The Gamecocks control slowly started to unravel as the half went on. As this was taking place, the sold-out Auburn Arena crowd started to get into it. Bruce Pearl was pumping and raising his hands to get the crowd going when he felt his team needed it most. Auburn's leading scorer K.T. Harrell didn't score until 10 minutes into the half and when he did, it ignited the crowd and a 7-0 Tigers run. Auburn then started to get the job done on the defensive end as well. They grabbed five steals, to Carolina's one, and forced the Gamecocks into 10 first-half turnovers while they only committed two. Senior guard Malcolm Canada drove and laid in a bucket as the clock expired to give the Tigers a 39-29 halftime lead.
Frank Martin had some words with his team at halftime and they came out in the second half on fire. The Gamecocks scored seven early points to cut Auburn's once 10-point lead to just three. The defensive pressure South Carolina started the game with that slowly faded away as the first half went along was suddenly back coming out of the locker room. After the early run, the game slowed down and South Carolina could not seem to tie it up until a Laimonas Chatkevicius turn-around jumper tied the game with 12 minutes to go. Chat had the hot hand in the second half, owning post-ups whenever South Carolina could get him the ball on the block. The Gamecocks then went on a 9-0 run that gave South Carolina a five-point lead with just under five minutes to go. Fortunes changed very quickly. Michael Carrera fouled Harrell on a three-point shot that went in. The And-1 three by Harrell fouled Carrera out of the game and ignited an 8-0 run by Auburn that occurred in just under a minute. The run featured another And-1, a powerful spin and make by Cinmeon Bowers, one of only five major conference players to average a double-double so far this season.
The Gamecocks went six of the final eight minutes without a field goal and as the game went on Auburn's K.T. Harrell and Cinmeon Bowers wore on the Gamecocks defense. After the run the Tigers never relinquished the lead again, despite South Carolina continually battling to get the lead back on their side.
South Carolina shot 15 free throws to Auburn's 33. With scoreless stretches in the second half that are becoming custom in SEC play for South Carolina, the free throw differential seemed to be piling on. Despite four Gamecocks scoring 13 points or more, South Carolina fell in Auburn 71-68.
The Gamecocks haven't won at Auburn since 2010 and Bruce Pearl is now 10-0 against South Carolina all-time. Frank Martin's teams are now 2-18 in SEC play on the road over the last three seasons.
The effort was there for most of the game but Auburn's effort was better, likely fueled by the racous crowd tonight on the Plains. After the game Bruce Pearl was complementive of the Gamecocks, saying, "That's an NCAA Tournament team. That team will finish in the top six of our league."
In a year where expectations rose coming into the year and then skyrocketed after a brilliant start, South Carolina now stands at 1-3 in conference play. It remains to be seen, but there won't be any dancing in Columbia if play continues to be this inconsistent.