NASHVILLE, Tenn. - South Carolina was in the game. A scoreless stretch speckled with USC turnovers gave the momentum to the other team, as it opened a double-digit second-half lead. The Gamecocks couldn't shoot themselves back in it and lost 59-48.
"I thought our defensive focus and effort was tremendous, I thought we did an outstanding job," coach Darrin Horn said. "Unbelievably proud of our guys and the way they played, but you're not winning any games when the other team shoots 28 free throws and you shoot four. Just not going to happen."
Horn was seething, his tie yanked out of place to disrupt his normally tidy appearance. The Gamecocks, even in another poor shooting performance, made three more field goals than the Commodores. The SEC's leading scorer, John Jenkins, scored 21 points but USC shut down Jeffery Taylor, the league's second-leading scorer, for a mere four points. USC forced 12 turnovers and allowed just four 3-pointers.
But Vanderbilt got to the line. USC didn't. Twenty-five free points in an 11-point loss is incredibly stinging to a team needing a win to inject some confidence in itself.
"Again, 28 free throws to four, it's going to be basically impossible to win the game," Horn said.
After fighting to a 22-22 halftime score, USC (10-17, 2-11 SEC) came out for the second half and didn't do a lot of the things that it did to get to that halftime score. The Gamecocks settled for 3-pointers instead of trying to run Vanderbilt around with extra passes or lane penetration, and the result was a sorry 8-of-23 showing for the game.
But as Vandy toyed with a five-point advantage, USC switched and began driving. Malik Cooke, Brenton Williams and Bruce Ellington each began challenging the lane.
"Late, we drove the ball a bunch, and ended up on the ground," Horn said. "But didn't end up at the foul line."
The Commodores (20-8, 9-4) struggled to shoot, but pulled ahead by simply pounding the ball inside. USC defended and fouled, defended and fouled; Vanderbilt shot and converted, shot and converted.
The deficit creeping toward the perilous double-digit mark that the Gamecocks know they couldn't afford to have, USC tried to go inside and was shoved back. Festus Ezeli set up his own real estate office in the paint and rejected the smaller Gamecocks when they did manage to split the top defense, recording five of the team's nine blocks, including three in a row.
"Yeah, he did," Horn said.
From there, it was predictable. USC tried to shoot itself back in the game from the 3-point line and couldn't. Damien Leonard scored 10 points but was 2-of-10 from the arc, and the rest of the team slipped into the "un-accountable" tag that hounded it in its loss to LSU.
Cooke had eight, but disappeared in the second half. Anthony Gill scored two points. R.J. Slawson, after a stretch of solid games, had no shot attempts and two rebounds. Ellington scored 15 but was 5-of-13 from the field, part of the team's 32.7 percent.
Vanderbilt was equally miserable but Ezeli scored 14 points despite battling foul trouble. His presence on the defensive end as well sent the Gamecocks packing.
Horn credited his team's defense, and Ellington again said that the team wasn't giving up. "We're losing, but we just got to keep fighting," the sophomore said. "Just keep running and keep driving and hopefully we'll get some calls."
Some that perhaps would have made a difference on Wednesday.
"We were scoring it well enough," Horn said. "Again, I don't know if I mentioned it, when they shoot 28 free throws and you shoot four, you're not going to win the game."
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