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January 31, 2012

Gamecocks must pick back up after close loss



Malik Cooke eyed the rim, knowing that one shot would tie and two would put South Carolina ahead. The Gamecocks had fought to keep another game even, and just as they had against Alabama in the last game, could go ahead in the waning seconds.

The shot rimmed out. Ole Miss rebounded. USC defended knowing that the Rebels would try to go to their height advantage in the paint, and were suckered into leaving Terrence Henry wide open in the corner for an uncontested 3-pointer.

A flash of white nylon made a one-point lead four, as USC's win streak was stopped at one. The Gamecocks lost 66-62 at Ole Miss, sending them back to Columbia with an extra day to prepare, but no extra time to think about how they had just given away a prime chance to get another victory.

No use thinking about it now, for even a minute. USC (9-11, 1-5 SEC) has an extremely tough two-game stretch coming up, and it's the Gamecocks' turn back on the SEC's Thursday-Saturday schedule. USC tips off late Thursday night at No. 14 Florida, before having to be back in Columbia for a 6 p.m. tip against No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday.

That's tough enough, but what's tougher is that the Ole Miss loss might have sent USC on its way to its third consecutive losing season in SEC play, and 16th losing season in 21 years in the league. The Gamecocks needed to get through a brutal first eight games of the league schedule with at least two wins to have a chance to catch up; barring a tremendous upset in either of the next two games, they stand to finish the first half at 1-7.

A front-loaded schedule had USC playing uphill from the get-go, but with games against the SEC's other cellar-dwellers on the back end, the Gamecocks were hoping to at least finish at .500. USC can, but it will have to pull some shockers, especially since Tennessee and Mississippi State are much better than they were predicted to be.

Losses at Auburn and at Ole Miss were being counted on, although the win over Alabama exchanged one of them. Now the Gamecocks have to depend on two games against Georgia (1-5), a home game against LSU (2-4) and two games against Tennessee (2-4) to help them out, when their home-field advantage is as thin as their NCAA tournament hopes. A game at Arkansas is a potential win, but the Razorbacks are 15-6 with all of their losses away from home.

To USC's credit, the Gamecocks have continued to come to work every day living the 24-hour rule - never too high with the highs, or too low with the lows. As coach Darrin Horn said, and the team has proved, it will at least fight.

In the win over Alabama, it was apparent that the Gamecocks weren't going to be out-fought for anything. Horn knew he could have a chance if USC just got to the five-minute mark with a tie, slight lead or slight deficit, and the Gamecocks made it count.

The intensity was there against Ole Miss. The scoring lulls that had dogged USC in its first four SEC losses have been there in the past two games, but nothing that has led to a massive deficit. The Rebels went up by seven points late, but all of a sudden, Brenton Williams was cutting the deficit to one point, and Cooke was going for a steal, getting fouled and sent to the line to tie the game.

The shot didn't fall.

But the season wasn't contained in that one shot.

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