The magic ran out in the one game South Carolina needed it most.
The Gamecocks' undefeated home SEC season fell hard on Thursday, Tennessee controlling glass, transition and almost everything else in an 86-70 win. USC finished 7-1 in the league at Colonial Life Arena this year, certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but dropped the game that could end up holding the most weight toward defining the regular season.
Tennessee clinched the No. 1 Eastern seed in next week's SEC tournament while USC was locked into the No. 2 seed. The Gamecocks will get a first-round bye -- but their hopes of claiming a piece or all of the SEC East division championship took a severe hit.
A week ago, all USC (20-8, 9-6 SEC) had to do was win. Instead, it's lost two straight games, tumbled out of first place and must rely on Alabama beating the Vols (while USC must win at Georgia) just to claim a co-championship.
And although coach Darrin Horn and his players said they weren't thinking about it, the NCAA tournament selection committee does look at how teams finish the regular season.
"I'm not really worried about resume, just worried about playing like we're capable of," Horn said. "The last two games, for whatever reason, we have not come out and played with the kind of aggressiveness and offensive trust and freedom that makes us a good basketball team.
"I think it's true for pretty much every team in the country -- when you don't do the things you do well, it's hard to be good. And we have not done that the last two games."
For the second straight game, USC's interior defense was non-existent. J.P. Prince scored a career-high 20 points, the majority on backdoor cuts and baseline drives. Those, added to Tyler Smith's 22 and 15 from inside-and-out shooter Wayne Chism gave the Gamecocks three hurdles to clear, and they could scarcely leap over one.
Tennessee (19-10, 10-5) scored at will and got too many chances to do it, dominating the boards 44-22. The putbacks and chippies mounted into a 54.7 percent night, or simply, way too much for the Gamecocks to counter.
USC put four in double figures, but each was streaky. Zam Fredrick had 16 on his Senior Night, but nine were on three of his first four shots in the game's first three minutes. Devan Downey had 16, but only four in the second half.
Mike Holmes and Brandis Raley-Ross had 10 each, but the former began playing recklessly late and was 5-of-13, while the latter, while courageous, just isn't the kind of player to lead a rally.
A 46-all game a minute into the second half was the Gamecocks' last gasp. The sellout crowd, most clad in garnet after following the instructions of a marketing promotion, was roaring and most were on their feet.
But Bobby Maze quieted them with a jumper, Holmes missed, Holmes turned it over and Prince backdoored the D. The Gamecocks finally woke up after Tennessee reeled off eight straight points with a Raley-Ross 3-pointer, but the Volunteers had already leaped out of bed.
They stayed in front by at least 10 for the last 11 minutes. USC's shooting, so brilliant in a three-point loss at Tennessee on Jan. 17, floated away on the wisps left by its formerly strong defense.
"It all started with not being aggressive defensively to start the game," Horn said, "and just kind of snowballed from there."
The questions of why had to be asked but couldn't be answered.
"If I could answer that, we'd have corrected it early," Fredrick retorted. "They killed us on the glass."
The Gamecocks had scarce time to brood about the loss -- Georgia at 2 p.m. on Saturday beckons. USC can't improve or regress its tournament seeding, but it can still beat the Bulldogs and hope for a Crimson Tide win to get a piece of the division championship.
But the main objective is to play better. USC has lost two straight games. It has not lost three straight all season.
"We just have to focus," Dominique Archie said. "We're looking to end the season on a high note."