VIDEO: Darrin Horn
VIDEO: Damontre Harris, Malik Cooke
Coach Darrin Horn loves his team's fight through a disaster of a season, although he recognizes that it needs a win to make the fight worthwhile. On Wednesday, trying to give the man responsible for that fight, Malik Cooke, a win on his Senior Night, South Carolina almost had it.
Brian Bryant took an inbound pass from Dee Bost with 1.4 seconds to play in overtime and laid it off the glass and through as the buzzer sounded, delivering Mississippi State a 69-67 win. The Gamecocks fought throughout, answered every big shot with one of their own, had the Bulldogs right where they wanted them - and didn't finish.
USC had fouls to give as MSU inbounded, and there was contact as Bryant received the pass, but no whistle. The shot went in and USC's grit and hustle disappeared in a flash of nylon, setting a harsh scene going forward.
"I think you get into dangerous situations sometimes, especially with a young team," Horn said, explaining the decision not to foul. "We talked about keeping them in front, switch inside, try to make them throw it over the top. We had a switch with two freshmen and a switch that didn't happen properly. It was a mistake on our part."
"I guess he got freed up, and he made a good play," said Cooke, who also blamed it on miscommunication.
The Bulldogs (20-10, 7-8 SEC) broke a five-game losing streak and strengthened their flagging NCAA tournament hopes, while the Gamecocks have to try and find some kind of reason to play in a lost cause of a year. At 10-19, 2-13, the only way USC can avoid the fourth 20-loss season in program history is to win out - meaning it sweeps through the SEC tournament, grabs the league's automatic pass to the NCAA tournament, then wins that.
Twenty losses is nearly final-stamped, and USC heads to Georgia on Saturday for its regular-season finale seeking to avoid the worst SEC record in program history (previous worst is 3-13, set twice). Also, the Gamecocks are locked into the 12th seed in the SEC tournament, meaning they'll play the league's fifth seed at 3:30 p.m. on March 8 in New Orleans.
How does a team rebound from something like Wednesday? "I don't know if I have a word to articulate how that makes you feel," Horn said. "It's tough."
The Gamecocks simply have to, if they want to delay further misery by winning a few games before they eventually lose their final game.
"We've got a tough group of guys," said Cooke, who finished with 11 points, three rebounds and four assists. "We think we can do it."
USC thought it had the game when Damontre Harris slammed home a Bruce Ellington assist for a 58-55 lead with 1:18 to play in regulation. The Bulldogs weren't hitting their shots and USC was enjoying the advantage, until Arnett Moultrie took a feed from Bost and laid in the ball with a foul.
The free throw swished through for a 58-all game, but Anthony Gill was fouled on a putback attempt and hit two free throws for a 60-58 lead with 24.7 seconds to go. Moultrie again got the ball underneath and was fouled, and his two shots tied the game at 60 with 11.2 seconds to go.
Ellington, who won the Alabama game with a last-second driver, tried the same shot but the ball missed off front rim. Bryant stroked a long jumper to make it a two-point MSU lead in overtime, but Ellington answered with a 3 for a one-point lead.
From there, the teams traded shots and the lead, until Gill tipped in an Ellington miss to knot the score at 67 with 13 seconds to go. MSU milked clock until Bost drove the lane, where Ellington was waiting.
Ellington stripped the ball and threw to mid-court, but his foot brushed the baseline and MSU had the ball under its own basket with 1.4 seconds to play. The ball went low to Bryant, who was defended in the paint, but nobody hit him enough to alter the final shot or make him win it from the free-throw line.
The Bulldogs weathered a bad stretch of basketball and hope to re-assert their tournament chances by hosting Arkansas on Saturday. The Gamecocks, who played a very strong game in front of their smallest SEC crowd of the season, have to try and rebound from a soul-crushing defeat.
"I was just trying to win it for Malik," said Harris, who played a monster game with 14 points, 11 rebounds, two steals and two blocks. "We're trying to stick together as a whole team."
USC got the long-desired contributions from everybody and still came up short. Ellington was marvelous with 17 points, always hitting the clutch basket. Gill had eight points and eight boards after sitting with early foul trouble. Damien Leonard came to life with nine points in the second half. Even Eric Smith got into the act, driving the lane for a lead-producing layup.
But it wasn't enough. USC was left staring at opportunities it had, such as only scoring three points off eight MSU turnovers in the first half, and the miscommunicated switch on the last play that cost it the game. The intensity was there, but it wasn't enough.
"I just told them, we've got to find a way to keep fighting," Horn said. "They continue to keep bouncing back."
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