In a season already filled with too many defeats, Wednesday's 69-67 overtime loss to Mississippi State could be the most excruciating of them all for South Carolina coach Darrin Horn and his players.
One final regular season contest remains (1:30 p.m. on Saturday at Georgia) before the Gamecocks head to New Orleans for next week's SEC tournament.
The stinging last-second loss to the Bulldogs in the final home game of a frustrating 2011-12 season secured the No. 12 seed for USC in the conference tourney.
The Gamecocks will face the No. 5 seed at 3:30 p.m. on March 8 in the Crescent City. Currently, Tennessee stands as the fifth seed in the SEC after posting a 74-69 overtime win at LSU on Wednesday.
The Vols are tied with Alabama for fourth place in the league with identical 9-6 marks, but the Tide owns the tiebreaker by virtue of a 52-50 win over Tennessee on Feb. 18.
Over the next few days, USC will scratch its head at how it managed to lose to a desperate Mississippi State team. USC hit 10-of-24 3-pointers, grabbed 17 offensive rebounds against one of the more athletic teams in the SEC and committed two fewer turnovers (14-12).
The difference between the two teams? Free-throw shooting. USC was 5-for-10 from the charity stripe, while Mississippi State was 13-of-15.
The frustration in Horn's voice was evident when he spoke afterward.
"I don't know if I have a word to articulate how that one makes you feel," Horn said. "We played really well and guarded really well. It was a total team effort. We had nine guys in double-figure minutes. Everybody that played really contributed and brought the things they needed to do to give our team an opportunity to be successful. They made the last play. I hurt for our guys. It was one of those games where you felt you deserved to win the game."
Although USC has struggled to win games this season, especially inside the conference, Horn said he has no complaints about his team's effort level over the past several weeks as the season has wound down.
"I don't know if anybody really understands how hard it is to do what our team has been doing," Horn said. "Nobody is happy with our record. Most of all, me and the guys. But to keep coming back and playing the way these guys have played ... that was a team out there tonight that has three potential draft picks and was fighting for its NCAA tournament life. They probably played better than they have in a month. We have to find a way to keep fighting."
MISSISSIPPI STATE PERSPECTIVE: Mississippi State carried a five-game losing streak into Wednesday and its NCAA tournament prospects were rapidly plummeting. Coach Rick Stansbury, though, spent part of his post-game press conference defending his team from widespread reports based on comments made by forward Arnett Moultrie, that the Bulldogs were riddled with dissension.
"Our locker room hasn't been separated," Stansbury insisted. "I know a lot has been said. But we've been together. If you look back on our streak, four of our last five have been on the road. And the one home game was against Kentucky. That's not a game you get healed up against. It's not like our kids haven't played well. We just hadn't finished games. Our guys had been fighting. They've kept working and believe. There was no separation in the locker room."
The first two setbacks of the Mississippi State losing streak came in overtime to Georgia and LSU. Three of the four losses also came on the road. Stansbury acknowledged his team had overcome circumstances to prevail against USC. The Bulldogs host Arkansas on afternoon in the final regular-season game for both teams.
"I thought South Carolina played extremely well. They made some huge plays," Stansbury said. "Our guys showed a lot of fight staying together tonight. On the road, it's never easy. It was Senior Night here. But our guys found a way to make plays when we had to."
* Horn applauded the sparse USC crowd for its enthusiasm on Senior Night. "They were tremendous and gave us a lift," he said. "They got into the game, especially down the stretch."
* Wednesday's game represented the first overtime game for USC this season.
* Damontre Harris had a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, a performance Horn described as a "monster night around the basket."
* USC shot 40 percent from the floor (26-of-65). The 67 points tied for the fourth-highest single-game total this season.
* The 10 3-pointers marked the third-highest single-game total for the Gamecocks this season. "We made some 3s tonight," Horn said. "In some respects, they were the same looks we have been getting, but we knocked them down tonight."
* Horn on USC's second-half success offensively, when it scored 34 points and shot 44.4 percent (12-of-27) from the floor: "We got out in transition and got a few easy ones. I thought we moved the ball better. Damien (Leonard) got a couple of open looks and was able to knock them down." Leonard was 3-of-7 from 3-point range in the second half.
* A troubling stat: Over the last three seasons under Horn, USC is 4-20 in February.
Team SEC Overall
*Kentucky 14-0 28-1
Florida 10-5 22-8
Vanderbilt 10-5 21-9
Alabama 9-6 20-9
Tennessee 9-6 17-13
LSU 7-8 17-12
Mississippi State 7-8 20-10
Ole Miss 7-8 17-12
Arkansas 6-9 18-12
Georgia 4-10 13-15
Auburn 4-11 14-15
South Carolina 2-13 10-19
*Clinched regular-season title
Ole Miss 77, Arkansas 75
Vanderbilt 77, Florida 67
Alabama 55, Auburn 49
Mississippi State 69, South Carolina 67 (OT)
Tennessee 74, LSU 69 (OT)
Georgia at Kentucky
South Carolina at Georgia
LSU at Auburn
Alabama at Ole Miss
Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Arkansas at Mississippi State
Kentucky at Florida
Give GamecockCentral.com a try with our 7-Day FREE Trial: http://sub.gamecockcentral.com
Click Here to view this Link. Follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/GamecockCentralClick Here to view this Link.
Click Here to view this Link. Follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/GamecockCentralClick Here to view this Link.