Only a few thousand people came to the Colonial Life Arena Thursday afternoon to watch South Carolina play USC Upstate in men's basketball.
They left having seen what may the low point of the season, if not the Frank Martin era in Columbia.
The Gamecocks blew a 17-point first-half lead and struggled through a listless second half to fall to the Spartans of the Atlantic Sun Conference 74-68.
It was the third straight loss for the Gamecocks, who fell to 2-5. USC Upstate improved to 6-5 and snapped a two-game losing streak.
The bad news for South Carolina started before tipoff, when it was announced that sophomore forward Michael Carrera wouldn't play because of his role in a postgame incident following the Manhattan game and continued with a shooting effort that was woeful at best. The Gamecocks shot just 33 percent from the floor (23-of-69), including 28 percent from three-point range as South Carolina attempted a season-high 29 shots from behind the arc, making just eight.
For 15 minutes the game looked like a Gamecock rout. South Carolina methodically established a double-figure lead thanks to balanced scoring and a defense that forced seven turnovers. While the Spartans couldn't find their range, Thornwell was pacing USC with nine first-half points (he finished with a team-high 19), followed by six from Brent Williams on two three-pointers and six from Laimonas Chatkevicius.
From there, though, the wheels came off. When Mindaugas Kacinas' free throw gave the Gamecocks a 17-point lead at 33-16 with 4:51 to play, Upstate outscored the Gamecocks 58-35 from that point on, including a 17-4 run to close the first half.
"When we had a chance to rattle them they didn't, and when they had a chance to rattle us we did," Frank Martin said. "That's the bug we're fighting right now.
"Real happy with about a 15-minute or so segment of the first half. I thought we were playing with a lot of enthusiasm and discipline, but then I don't know what gets into our guys. We're doing things the right way then we have guys going for steals and going to double the ball when we don't double and so we give up open shots and we give a good team life."
Upstate was paced by a career-high 22 points from forward Ricardo Glenn. At 6-foot-8, 246-pounds, he pushed around the Gamecock big men with ease, notching a double-double with 14 rebounds to go with five assists.
For the Gamecocks, Thornwell led the way with 19 points, followed by 11 from Ty Johnson and eight from Bruce Ellington and Kacinas.
For Johnson, the loss is one that hurts but that he hopes can be meaningful if it allows the players to grow.
"As a team we have to stick together," Johnson said. "We have to help each other. We have a really young team. The teams that we're playing are really good.
"Coach scheduled a hard game on purpose. We have to take a hard look in the mirror. We were up on a team that was really good, a lot of juniors and seniors, and we couldn't finish."
Martin said for his part he's not going to give up on a group of freshmen he believes in.
"They're frustrated, but like I told them, our frustration shouldn't be about winning and losing," Martin said. "Our frustration should be about our immaturity. That's something we can control.
"We knew what we signed up for. We've got young bucks. I'm excited about them. I don't get discouraged because of a win or a loss. I don't like to lose, don't misunderstand me. But what am I going to do, dwell on it? Panic? If I panic right now, what do you think all those freshmen are going to do? They're panicking without me panicking.
"We have to stay the course and believe in what we're doing. When you do right and you're willing to embrace responsibility, things work out. I know we're in a marathon race. The young kids don't understand that yet, but we'll get there."