VIDEO: Bruce Ellington
NEW ORLEANS - A bad end to a bad season.
And like many of the others, the 21st and final loss of the year was difficult to swallow.
South Carolina was tied with Alabama at 51 with 6:37 to play on Thursday, but the Crimson Tide out-scored the Gamecocks 12-6 to win 63-57 and end USC's year at 10-21, with yet another one-and-done exit from the SEC tournament. Trevor Lacey converted Alabama's only 3-pointer of the game with one minute to go to turn a two-point lead into five, and the Gamecocks couldn't make enough shots or get Alabama to miss enough free throws to come back.
Malik Cooke's 3-pointer with USC trailing 58-55 missed and Alabama rebounded, and there went the ballgame. The Crimson Tide (21-10) advanced to meet Florida at 3:30 p.m. on Friday in the tournament quarterfinals, seeking to lock down an NCAA tournament berth.
USC, after ending the fourth 20-loss season in school history, heads into a long offseason. The Gamecocks finished their worst SEC season in history at 2-14, and there are other issues on the horizon.
The first, which affects everything else - will coach Darrin Horn return?
Horn has yet to win a postseason game in his four-year tenure, going 0-5 in four SEC tournaments and one NIT. After a 21-win season in his first year with an SEC East championship, Horn's past three teams have each won less games than the year before. The program, while graduating players, posting a stellar grade-point average and hardly having a whiff of any off-the-court issues, has been marred by massive attrition and recruiting misses. This season, the Gamecocks suffered the ignominy of winning less games (10) than the school's football team (11).
Speculation has swirled throughout the season about Horn's future, since he has three years left on his contract and there is a hefty buyout ($2.4 million) to consider. The USC Board of Trustees has publicly pledged its support for Horn, and athletic director Eric Hyman has as well, but Hyman has not definitively said if Horn will return next year.
Hyman attended Thursday's game. His usual end-of-season policy is to sit down with every coach and discuss the season, and how the program is progressing. A date for Hyman and Horn to meet is unknown.
In the meantime, USC's players ended the season as they had throughout - competitive, playing hard and sticking together through rough times, but without a victory to show for it. USC was thrashed in the paint by Alabama's JaMychal Green and Nick Jacobs early and smoked by Lacey's 3 and six free throws late.
"Alabama is apparently the best defensive team in the country at playing really hard and really physical and not fouling," Horn grumbled, "because they got -- we only got to the line six times and they shot 29."
Alabama had 12 personal fouls while USC had 25. Anthony Gill, with two quick ones, was again taken out of being effective and he ended with two points. The Crimson Tide scored 56 of their 63 points in the paint or at the line.
Yet, USC hung close, trimming an 11-point deficit to two right out of the second-half gate, until the whistle again blew.
Bruce Ellington, who scored seven points in a spurt to start the second half, picked up his fourth foul at 12:53. He had to sit, and Alabama immediately scored the next six points.
"We seemed to be gaining some momentum, were playing extremely well," Horn said. "That was definitely something that hurt us."
But USC still didn't quit. Led by Brenton Williams, the Gamecocks charged back into the game. Williams canned two straight 3-pointers to tie the game at 51, but was then called for charging when he collided with two Alabama defenders in the lane, a call that was delayed as the official looked at it from the sideline.
"That was a pretty shocking call," Williams said. "I didn't expect that."
Ellington returned to the game and immediately drove the lane for a bucket, but the two-point deficit became five as Lacey sunk his 3. USC's hope for an upset, and a feel-good win, vanished as the ball swished through the nylon.
Ellington, Williams and Damien Leonard each ended in double figures, with Leonard and Williams scoring 13 points each. Damontre Harris had six, as did Cooke, playing his final game.
Horn lauded his team's competitiveness, then was asked the obvious question. Horn has said that he has received support from the powers that be, but has remained quiet on if he has received any specific assurances on if he'll be back.
"My thing right now is that we're committed to building our program," Horn said. "That's going to start with, now that our season's over, hitting the recruiting trail immediately as the rules allow, and we'll sit down and it's customary at the end of all seasons and visit. But we're going to keep plugging forward and keep doing what we have been doing to commit to building our program."
Several players voiced their support for the program and the team's leadership. Ellington said that he didn't listen to any of the outside whispers as the season progressed.
"I don't pay any attention to it. I just come out and I just play basketball," Ellington said. "Yes, sir. We're real satisfied (with our leadership)."
NOTE: Ellington has a bruised right hand. He was X-rayed after the game. He was not wearing any wrap or brace on it afterward and he will be evaluated as needed, per a USC spokesperson.
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