ATLANTA - With chance after chance to salt the game away in the final minute, free throw after free throw clanged off the rim for No. 13 seed South Carolina.
Clinging to a one-point lead and trying to hold off a desperate Arkansas team playing for its NCAA Tournament life, USC missed four of its last five free throws, each miss breathing life into Arkansas' postseason hopes and driving Gamecock fans not already there to pick up a bottle.
Frank Martin and his team, however, never panicked. The Gamecocks focused on their defense, got the stops they needed and in the end celebrated a 71-69 upset of the SEC Tournament's fifth-seeded team Thursday night at the Georgia Dome.
The Gamecocks (14-19) play Tennessee tomorrow in the quarterfinals in a game scheduled to begin at approximately 3:30 p.m.
"Survive and advance," Martin said. "That's all you're geared up to do this time of year.
"I thought our coaches did a great job of keeping the fight in our guys and the belief in our guys.
"We came up with stops and rebounds in the last minute-and-a-half of the game. That's something we preach, that to win, you have to go through your defense. I'm real proud of our guys."
The Gamecocks were led by 16 points from Sindarius Thornwell and a career-high 16 points from Laimonas Chatkevicius. Duane Notice added 11 and Brent Williams scored 10.
In a game that featured 21 lead changes, 15 ties and neither team able to build a lead larger than six, it was fitting that the game came down to the final two minutes.
When Arkansas' Michael Qualls threaded the USC defense with a layup off the backboard to give the Razorbacks a three-point lead at 69-66 with 2:20 to play, it capped an 8-4 run that seemingly had turned momentum to Arkansas' sideline.
A foul by Qualls on Chatkevicius sent the USC center to the free throw line, a place where he nailed a season-high 7-of-8 the day before and already had tied that with 7 so far on 10 attempts. After making the first to give him a season-high eight foul shots made, he clanged the next one, which bounced high but was tipped out to Thornwell, who was fouled and made both to tie the game at 69.
After a missed 3-pointer by Mardracus Wade, Williams was fouled again. The nation's leading free-throw shooter coming into Thursday. Williams made his first but missed his second giving the Gamecocks a 70-69 edge with 53 second to go.
With the Arkansas crowd cheering its team, the Razorbacks worked their offense patiently, but Rashad Madden missed a jumper and Fred Gulley fouled Thornwell with 20.8 seconds to play and a chance to extend the lead to three.
Thornwell clanged the both attempts, the second being USC's fourth miss in its last five attempts, and after a timeout to talk things over Arkansas pushed the ball upcourt with 20 seconds left down one with a chance to escape with a win.
A point-blank miss by Bobby Portis, however, and rebound by Michael Carrera ended the threat, as Carrera hit one of two free throws with 2.9 second to play and Arkansas' last-ditch half-court shot had no chance and the Gamecocks found themselves winners of two games at the SEC Tournament for the first time since 2006.
"We were up one, with everybody missing free throws," Thornwell said. "Regardless of those missed free throws or whatnot, we were still up. So all we needed was one rebound, one stop.
"Even though we missed free throws, we just wanted to focus, to keep everybody's minds right and focus on the next possession, the next play. That's what we did."
Martin said he never gets upset at missed shots, free throws or otherwise, and helped keep his team calm by focusing them on what came next.
"Next play, next play," Martin said. "We don't get to teach a lesson tomorrow if we drop our heads because of a missed free throw. Next play. That's what we did. We got stops.
"Kids miss a shot, they miss a shot. It is what it is. Things like that, there's no reason to hang your head. Whether we made them or missed them - and we would have made our life a lot easier if we would have made them - but at the end of the day we still would have had a lead.
"What we preach is defense, defense, defense. So you got a lead, you trust your defense. Go out there and do your job and that's what our guys did."
Not only did they do their job, they earned the right to enjoy the SEC Tournament one more day and challenge for a right to topple a Tennessee team Martin said is playing as well as anyone in the SEC, including Florida.
For now, though, the Gamecocks will enjoy the moment.
"I'm ecstatic for our team," Martin said. "I'm ecstatic for our coaches, our staff, our kids."
"I said this earlier in the year and I'm to quote Coach (Steve) Spurrier again, 'I guess the Good Lord was looking down on the Gamecocks today.'"