GamecockCentral.com traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to cover the South Carolina-Vanderbilt men's basketball game.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With a chance to keep writing one of the best stories of its recent history, South Carolina left pen, paper and most importantly, an idea of how to stop the opponent, elsewhere.
The Gamecocks' euphoria at annihilating SEC stalwart Kentucky earlier this week was punched right out of their heads at Vanderbilt on Saturday, 96-83. USC (20-7, 9-5 SEC), three days after playing perhaps its best game of the season and rising into sole possession of first place in the SEC East, was given a thorough beatdown at maybe the worst possible time.
The good news -- USC remains in first place, due to Kentucky losing to LSU earlier Saturday. But the Gamecocks will only remain there by themselves for a span of hours -- as soon as Tennessee and Florida finish tangling on Sunday afternoon, one of those 8-5 teams will be sharing the lead spot.
If it's the Volunteers, USC's quest to find a cure for Saturday's slumping show will be expedited -- Tennessee comes to Columbia along with the ESPN cameras on Thursday.
Not that anybody's thinking about standings or the future. The present is much too concerning.
"As poor as we were defensively, to start the game ... ," USC coach Darrin Horn began. "It just snowballed from there."
Trying to find a specific reason for the destruction was near impossible -- as Horn said, one mistake turned into many bigger ones. The interior defense, which blocked a school-record 16 shots against Kentucky (eight alone against Wildcats man-mountain Patrick Patterson) was abused early and often by Jeffery Taylor and A.J. Ogilvy. On the off chance those two couldn't hit, the Commodores (17-11, 6-8) simply switched out to sharpshooter Jermaine Beal, who had 16 of his 27 points by halftime.
The Gamecocks couldn't match it, and they also began to run afoul of the officials. Forward Mike Holmes was given a technical foul barely a minute into the game and the USC bench was slapped with one before the 10-minute mark in the first half.
Just bad, worse and awful. The lead rarely dropped below 20 points in the second half until the game was too far gone. The Gamecocks earned their second-worst loss of the season and most debilitating since an 85-68 drubbing at LSU on Jan. 14.
USC rebounded from that one to go 8-3 in their next 11 games.
Little comfort now.
"We just didn't play defense like we normally do," said guard Devan Downey, who led the Gamecocks with 24 points. "Starting with me. I'm the point guard and I didn't set the tone."
Vanderbilt is locked into either the fifth- or sixth-place spot in the SEC East and was coming off a loss to cellar-dweller Georgia. The Commodores played like they were the ones in first place.
They sunk 11 of their first 13 shots, shot 62 percent for the game and posted their first 20-point lead of the game less than 13 minutes in. Beal and Ogilvy (28 points) each had a career-high night as Vandy notched its highest-scoring first half of the season against an SEC opponent.
By contrast, USC didn't play badly, but just bad enough to allow Vandy a sizable lead from which it couldn't recover. The Gamecocks forced twice as many turnovers as they committed (24-12), hung in on the glass (40-32 Commodores) and shot 42 percent.
But none of it was enough. Vandy took off on a scorching night and never cooled off until the final horn.
"Well, that was a little better," coach Kevin Stallings said. "A lot better, actually."
Downey and Zam Fredrick (21 points) spoke afterward, still seeming a bit mystified as to just what happened.
"They got into it early," Fredrick said. "We were allowing them to do whatever they wanted to."
The Gamecocks couldn't score in the first half when they fell behind by as much as 20, and with one of their only remaining chances looming just after halftime, they still couldn't. Trailing 47-27, Beal worked a three-point play on the first possession and Vandy never slowed.
Behind Downey's shooting, the Gamecocks eventually cut it to 15 points. But it never got closer than that until the final bell.
USC limped into the night facing two games in the rest of the regular season, either of which could make or break its division title hopes. Fredrick and Downey said they'd be watching the Tennessee-Florida game with perhaps a bit keener eye, although Fredrick said he'd watch it anyway since he's a college basketball fan as well as a player.
"If first place is on the line Thursday, then so be it," Fredrick said. "We're going to come out and play the game the way we always do."
Which, judging by the rest of their season thus far, was absolutely nothing like Saturday.