It was only fitting that Cooke, the Gamecocks' only senior, would be rewarded for his efforts with a chance to lift USC out of its doldrums - and that he would deliver.
Cooke kissed a shot off the glass for a 57-56 lead with 19 seconds to play on Wednesday, and USC held on with a late defensive stand to finally get its second SEC win. USC broke a five-game losing streak and avoided its first 1-10 start in SEC play, as well as avoiding becoming the first team since the SEC went to the 16-game schedule 21 years ago to only win one league game.
"I was just trying to make a play," the soft-spoken senior said. "I was just trying to get a win for South Carolina. We were really just tired of losing; we're going to try to start a win streak."
At 10-15, 2-9 SEC, the Gamecocks aren't celebrating by a long shot. But as coach Darrin Horn pointed out before the Georgia game, USC needed to win to show that its hard work and unwavering faith would pay off. On Wednesday, it finally did.
"We were all sick and tired of being sick and tired," Horn said. "We didn't compound those mistakes (this time). We've got no shot otherwise, with how things have gone. It's hard to win when you're down 15 to 17 points."
USC didn't trail by more than seven, and answered each time Georgia made a run. The Gamecocks erased an 8-0 first-half run with one of their own, then came back from seven down with just under 10 minutes to play.
Cooke led all scorers with 13 points while Damontre Harris had an outstanding game with nine points, eight rebounds and five blocks. Brenton Williams came out of nowhere to score 10 points, eight in one sizzling first-half stretch, and Damien Leonard couldn't have picked a better spot for his only three points of the game, with a 3-pointer that broke a 50-50 tie.
Cooke hit the game-winner, then USC held on throughout a dizzying final 19 seconds. Gerald Robinson Jr. twisted in the lane for an underhanded scoop, but Harris rejected it and Ellington snared the rebound. The Bulldogs (12-13, 3-8), out of timeouts, hurriedly fouled.
Ellington missed the front end of a 1-and-1 chance and Georgia ran downcourt. The ball was passed into the lane and then back out to freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Georgia's leading scorer who had thus far been rather quiet.
Caldwell-Pope rose for the 3-pointer but missed as the ball bounded high off the rim. USC and Georgia each fought for the rebound and the officials called a jumpball as the buzzer sounded.
Following a lengthy discussion, officials put 0.2 seconds back on the clock, not enough time to inbound, catch and shoot. The Gamecocks called timeout, then crowded four players in the lane with hands up, next to Georgia's four players, and got ready for a make-or-break chance.
"We wanted to make sure there was no confusion," Horn said. "We made it crystal-clear that the only thing they could do was throw it to the rim."
Georgia's chance broke. Harris guarded the baseline on Connor Nolte, who tried to throw the ball above the lengthy wingspan of the leaping 6-foot-9 sophomore. Harris got enough of a finger on the ball to start the clock, and the buzzer sounded before it landed in a pair of hands.
"I was just trying to make a play to win a basketball game," Harris said.
The Gamecocks, who thought they had it before, jubilantly spilled onto the floor. The win and the grins don't wipe the record, but they make USC feel a lot better while it's suffering. USC will attempt to make it two straight when LSU (15-10, 5-6) visits Colonial Life Arena on Saturday.
USC won because it avoided falling into a massive deficit and never let the Georgia run get too long. The Gamecocks had 14 turnovers to the Bulldogs' 13, and were out-rebounded 37-29, but made enough plays to hang even.
Leonard's 3 broke a tie, Anthony Gill sank two free throws for a 55-53 lead and then Cooke got the ball. The man who played for Georgia coach Mark Fox for two years at Nevada didn't have a play designed for him, but got open and made something happen.
"I just congratulated him as we went through," Fox said. "He's what we thought he would be when we recruited him. He's a winner off the court, too."
Cooke is only six points shy of 1,000 for his career (Nevada and USC). He's hoping to get that done while starting the first winning streak since a four-game stretch from Dec. 21-Jan. 3.
"We say it whenever we feel like we need to," Cooke said, referencing the "No more!" chant that he and several others were saying throughout the game. "It feels real good to get a win here."
NOTE: Ellington sprained a toe on his right foot when he ran out-of-bounds in the first half, but returned to finish the game. He'll be fine for LSU.
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