KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The effort, the focus, the mentality was there.
The win was not.
South Carolina fell 82-79 to No. 24 Tennessee on Saturday, a furious comeback with 10 minutes to play coming up one shot short. The Gamecocks trailed by 17 with 8:13 to play and closed to within three on a flurry of clutch shots and defensive brilliance, but the final stamp to the rally was tapped to the side of the court with Devan Downey frantically chasing it.
He got one hand on the ball and managed to keep it in bounds before tumbling into the scorer's table. All he -- and the rest of the bone-weary Gamecocks -- could do was watch as Tennessee's Scotty Hopson recovered and ran the final seconds off the clock.
Ten more seconds, one more drive to the hoop, one more rebound and perhaps USC would have won one of those games it's become (in)famous for losing. As it was, the Gamecocks re-gained numerous chunks of their pride following a listless loss to LSU earlier in the week by turning what was a one-sided Volunteer victory into a sweat-it-out affair.
But nobody wanted to be congratulated afterward. The time for moral victories has long since passed.
"You can say that, but we got to find a way, on the road especially, not to get caught up in these double-digit deficits," Downey said. "You can't do that. No doubt, we out-played them in the second half, but there's two halves to the ballgame."
"I think it helps the guys," coach Darrin Horn said. "Doesn't help me very much. We want to win and I think that's how we can play all the time."
The Gamecocks (12-4, 1-2 SEC) dropped their second straight game and fourth straight to the Volunteers (11-5, 2-1). They came out full of jet fuel, streaking past USC's shattered transition defense and using their superb athleticism to hold a dunking clinic.
Wilted but not dead, USC doggedly hung in until a few defensive stops deprived Tennessee of any hoarded timeouts. Trailing 67-50 with 8:13 to play, the Gamecocks chipped, prodded and slashed away at the lead until Downey attempted a long-range 3-pointer with 10 seconds to go.
He missed but Mike Holmes was there with the rebound, going back up immediately with Cameron Tatum on his back. The basket glanced off the glass and through, the score was 82-79 and Holmes had a free throw with 6.1 seconds showing.
The Gamecocks called timeout before Holmes reported to the line. He toed it and arched the shot, where it glanced off the rim and fell directly below the hoop.
Following their reminded instructions from Horn, the Gamecocks converged and tried to swat it toward an open guard. It bounced just out of reach of Downey, who tried to corral but never got on it.
The horn went off and a deflated USC team trudged to the locker room. Great to come back, great to make it that close, but one of these days, their expressions seemed to be reading, it's got to pay off with a W.
"I thought we were going to get the 3 at the end, when we executed the tap play on the free throw," Horn said. "Did not miss it on purpose. Had an opportunity, took a bad bounce and Devan couldn't pick it up. We tried it; it just didn't work."
At that point, all the mistakes from the first half flooded back into memory. USC successfully putting forward Wayne Chism in foul trouble -- he finished with no points and watched the end from the bench -- but letting Tyler Smith and J.P. Prince blow past the defense for easy layups. The lunging on defense instead of sticking, leading to too many open shots for Hopson and Bobby Maze. The enormous gap in points in the paint -- UT 54, USC 36.
That ricochet somehow gets to Downey or Zam Fredrick or Evka Baniulis and they hit a 3-pointer, all those problems are forgotten.
But it didn't and they didn't, so they're on the mind.
"We've just got to focus," Dominique Archie said. "Early we didn't play very good defense and struggled. We didn't get any layups and pretty much every shot was contested."
Seemingly blown away at the half, trailing 43-28 and 10-of-30 from the field, USC looked exactly like it did against LSU earlier this week -- scared, no intensity, unsure. When Hopson threw down an alley-oop dunk from Maze to make it 67-50, the Gamecocks could have quietly packed up and headed into the wintry mix.
But Holmes hit a jumper and Downey pulled a Kobe Bryant stop-and-pop special, and it was 67-56. Then Holmes laid in a shot, Fredrick stole the inbounds pass and buried a 3-pointer and Downey hit again -- 73-65.
The Gamecocks pressed and stole and shot and scored and when Fredrick drilled another 3 with 30 seconds left, USC was down 81-77. They fouled Tatum to stop the clock, Tatum rewarded them with a missed free throw and Fredrick launched from 20 feet.
The shot was short and Baniulis rebounded under the hoop. He threw back out -- and Hopson intercepted.
"That can go either way," Horn said. "If he can get it to the basket, that's great. He's thinking, kick it out, which is not only something you do late game, but something that's part of our system. If you get an offensive rebound and there's a lot of traffic, kick it out. What he didn't do was be strong with the ball."
The Gamecocks still had a chance. It ended on a tapped ball to the wrong place.
Downey ended with 19 points, the same as Archie (who also had 12 rebounds). Fredrick had 18 while Holmes had 10.
All recognized the strides they'd made after being blown out by Tennessee in two of the last three times they've played.
Not that they were comforted.
"Our kids fought, without question, and gave great effort the second half and played with the kind of mentality that we want, but we've got to learn to do that from the get-go, especially on the road in league play," Horn said. "I thought individually, Dominique and Devan and Zam and those guys really stepped up in the second half especially and played the way that we need them to play."
"I don't think nothing can make up for losing," Downey said. "We just got to find a way as a team not to get down early. You can't expect to win in this league if you're just going to dig yourself in these holes every night."