NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It concluded with a cruel twist.
Possibly the greatest scorer in South Carolina history stood at the free-throw line for the two easiest shots in the game with 18.3 seconds to play, trying to even a two-point Alabama advantage.
And missed the first one.
Devan Downey's magnificent career likely ended on Thursday as South Carolina squandered an 18-point lead and lost 68-63 to Alabama in the first round of the SEC tournament. Downey finished with 21 points, leaving him with 1,901 for his USC tenure (fourth on the career chart), yet the one that he really needed to convert rimmed out.
After all of the acrobatic lay-ups, stop-and-pop miraculous 3-pointers and the never-say-die fearlessness that made him the SEC's top scorer this year, it was over.
On a free throw.
"It's just disappointing to lose, period," Downey said in the tomb of the locker room, as he continued to routinely stuff items into his backpack.
Especially when the Gamecocks seemed poised to win at least one game and strengthen their postseason chances. In a scene that has been repeated far too often in a dream-destroying season, USC (15-16) got away from everything it had done to set up a potential win.
USC led the Crimson Tide (17-14) 54-36 with 11:38 to play and was benefiting from a great game plan. The Gamecocks had worked the ball in to posts Sam Muldrow and Lakeem Jackson early and once Downey began to score, USC took off.
Alabama could hardly get the ball past half-court, fumbling possession after possession into USC's hands. Once Jackson got the ball and spun around his defender for a shot off the glass, the small number of Gamecock fans in attendance were already looking ahead to a Friday matchup with top seed Kentucky.
Instead, the Crimson Tide will play the Wildcats. And deservedly so -- they outscored USC 32-9 in the final 11:38, holding the Gamecocks to one field goal in that stretch.
"They quivered under pressure, and we were able to come out with the victory," Alabama's Justin Knox said.
USC cut down on the problems that led to an Alabama win in Columbia eight days ago, yet still couldn't pull off the win. The Gamecocks were only two behind on the rebounding chart and put Muldrow (13), Downey and Ramon Galloway (14) in double figures. Knox was again a load in the paint with 16 points while Mikhail Torrance scored 17, but Alabama wasn't stroking its 3-pointers and USC was defending well.
Then, even as Alabama made it a game, USC still had a chance to win. Galloway drained a 3-pointer from the corner to tie the game at 62 with 1:10 to play, the Gamecocks' only shot from the field in that last debilitating stretch. Torrance floated one through the net for a two-point lead, Downey tried to equal it and missed, then Alabama lost the ball on a drive.
Downey came up with it -- adding to his career record for steals -- and began sprinting downcourt but Senario Hillman quickly fouled him. Downey eyed the rim with less than 20 seconds to play, and missed the first shot.
He made the second but the Tide still led by one. The Gamecocks tried to trap instead of fouling and almost got the ball, but Tony Mitchell got free and threw to JaMychal Green for a lay-up. Muldrow tried to throw a long pass downcourt for a last-second 3-point try, Mitchell intercepted it and Downey fouled him.
Mitchell made both shots and USC never got a final shot off. The Gamecocks did everything they had to do to win, except when they needed to do it the most.
"I think for 30 minutes tonight, we played really well," coach Darrin Horn said. "And then the last 10 minutes, we had a hard time scoring."
Without the ball going into the hole, all of USC's little mistakes became magnified. The Gamecocks were called for entering the lane early, giving Knox another shot after he'd missed a second free throw; Brandis Raley-Ross was whistled for backcourt and later for five seconds when he couldn't get the ball inbounds; dull passes inside were intercepted and turned into Tide points; and USC had a shot-clock violation with just under four minutes to play.
Alabama kept chipping at the lead and USC helped until the Tide finally spurted ahead. They bounced into the quarterfinals and gave their postseason chances a boost while USC must hope for sympathy from the NIT selection committee.
There is no rule requiring the NIT to take a .500 or better team, but it has never taken a sub-.500 team. Horn said earlier this week that the options were the NCAA or NIT tournaments and the Gamecocks would not accept bids to the College Basketball Invitational or the Collegeinsider.com Tournament; Downey was mystified that the latter two even existed.
Yet he expressed his wish to keep playing somewhere, if at all possible. Hard to believe that it was over so quickly.
"I just like to play," Downey said. "You know?"