South Carolina's January loss to Ole Miss came exactly one week after the Iowa State win, an event that still confuses the smartest college basketball pundits.
In between those instances, the Gamecocks lost their SEC opener to Florida at home. The fragile Gamecocks walked into Oxford, a place they have historically been terrible, and left with yet another loss after a promising nonconference slate. Self-doubt creeped in and the loss started the slide into SEC play that seemed to define this team's season.
Maybe a new definition was written tonight. Written in the cruelest or most thrilling way, depending on what shade of red you wear. South Carolina earned revenge from the early season loss and won their second consecutive SEC Tournament game.
The Gamecocks led 10-3 early on with the Rebels starting 1-of-6 from the floor. Andy Kennedy's team then got it started and went on a 7-0 run to get the deficit down to two, 12-10, with 11:38 left in the half. During that sequence, Sindarius Thornwell missed three free throws and a lay-up, beginning a testing first half. Turnovers kept the Rebels at bay. Eight minutes in, Ole Miss had turned the ball over eight times. To make matters worse, they were shooting 25 percent from the field. South Carolina built their lead to 10, 26-16, late in the first period of play. Ole Miss gave their faithful fan base another spurt, knocking in back-to-back treys to get within four with 1:50 left in the half. With 55 seconds left in the half, Ole Miss completed an 8-1 run with a lay-in to bring the score to 27-24 heading into halftime. South Carolina finished 2-of-14 from the field. Their lead should have been 10 or more but it was just three at half. Ole Miss 3-pointers and offensive rebounds, leading to second-chance points kept them in the game.
The Rebels averaged 11 turnovers per game this season but had 15 in the first half. That trend continued in the second half and it allowed South Carolina to get off to a nice start. The Gamecocks quickly boosted their three point lead to eight. However, they gave those points right back by going on a 3:06 scoring drought. Each team struggled to shoot the ball for most of the night. At one point, the Gamecocks were in the midst a 2-of-11 stretch while the Rebels were in a 2-of-13 stretch of their own.
With under four minutes to go, at the final media timeout, South Carolina led 49-48. Shortly after this is when things began to accelerate. One of the SEC's best scorers, Rebel guard Stefan Moody, hit a 3-pointer to put the Rebels up 52-51 with under two minutes to play. On the next possession, with the shot clock winding down, Thornwell took the ball to the basket and earned himself an and-1, nailing the free throw and putting the Gamecocks up 54-52 with 1:37 left. After an Ole Miss timeout, Rebel senior Jarvis Summers completed a nice drive-and-dish to Sebastian Saiz to tie the game. Thronwell again bullied his way to the basket on the next trip down for a lay-in, giving USC a 56-54 lead with 45 seconds left. Moody missed a three-point attempt but on the rebound attempt Michael Carrera knocked the ball out of bounds, giving Ole Miss the ball with 33 seconds left. Moody again missed the three and Carrera secured the rebound this time. Up 56-54 with less than 30 seconds to play, Carrera had two foul shots to ice the game. He missed both of them. On the rebound, Summers flew with the ball up the floor and after a contested floater, Laimonas Chatkevicius grabbed the missed field goal and was fouled. In the same situation as Carrera before him, Chat hit 1-of-2 free throws to put USC up 57-54 with 11 seconds to play. Out of a timeout, Moody drew three Gamecock defenders and swung the ball to Summers in the left the corner, who drained a three while being fouled by Duane Notice. Tied at 57, Summers sunk his free throw attempt, giving Ole Miss a one-point lead with 3.3 seconds left. Notice originally tried to foul Moody after he crossed half-court but the refs swallowed their whistles, thus giving us this outrageous finish. Senior guard Tyrone Johnson received the inbounds pass and charged up the floor. While attempting a running three, a few feet behind the 3-point line, Ole Miss guard Snoop White fouled Johnson in the act shooting. Ty was now going to the line with 0.7 seconds left for three foul shots and a shot to redeem his team. Johnson hadn't hit a field goal all night but had made two free throws earlier. He ranks as the SEC's seventh best free throw shooter at 82 percent for the season. The senior knocked in all three of his attempts and a block on Ole Miss' heave at the end gave South Carolina an improbable 60-58 win.
With the win, the Gamecocks advanced to the SEC Tournament's quarterfinals, the same platform USC advanced to last season. Now over a third of Frank Martin's SEC wins in the last two seasons have come in the SEC Tournament ('13-14: 5, '14-15: 6, 2014/2015 SEC Tournaments: 4).
After scoring a dozen last night, Carrera led the way tonight with 16 points to go along with six rebounds. Despite a 3-of-13 performance from the field, Notice ended with 15 points. Thornwell owned last night and after a rough first half, he scored all 10 of his points in the second half, including two clutch baskets in the final 1:30. Tyrone Johnson was 0-of-5 from the floor but was 5-of-5 from the free throw line in route to becoming the saving grace for the Gamecocks.
The victory means South Carolina-Georgia Part III. The Gamecocks swept the Bulldogs during the season. It must be mentioned that UGA has suffered from injuries for much of the year, facing USC both times with key players injured and unavailable. The 'Dawgs will be well rested tomorrow night but that's not to say the Cocks aren't up to the challenge of beating a Georgia team at full strength. South Carolina is playing some incredible defense right now. They held Ole Miss to a 10 minute scoreless stretch tonight in the second half. Georgia and South Carolina play similar styles, hoping to make the game ugly in the half-court while capitalizing on their opponent's mistakes, turning defense into offense. The storylines will be who plays the better defense and can South Carolina's legs hold up with three games in three days.
The Gamecocks and the 'Dawgs will get down in Nashville after the conclusion of Arkansas-Tennessee, at approximately 9:00 p.m. ET. The game will once again be broadcasted on the SEC Network and the winner takes on the victor of the Razorbacks and Vols in the SEC semis on Saturday.