COLUMBIA -- The last time this happened, South Carolina won the SEC regular-season title.
"That was one that we let get away and I don't know any other kind of way to say it. For us to not play better and make plays down the stretch ... it's mind-boggling to me," coach Dave Odom said. "You do the proper thing, that game should have been in the bank."
UNC Asheville shocked the Gamecocks 61-58 Saturday at the Colonial Center, scoring the game's last 10 points and ending USC's three-game winning streak with a massive thud. The Gamecocks, in control with a 58-51 lead and just under four minutes to play, committed two turnovers, missed four shots in the game's final minutes and suffered a stunning loss at the worst possible time -- the last game before SEC play.
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It was going to be tough enough going into the next two games -- at No. 15 Vanderbilt and hosting No. 8 Tennessee -- with a win. With a loss, in a game the Gamecocks had and to a mid-major opponent, USC has scarce little time to find answers before boarding the bus to Nashville.
"We've just got to put it together," guard Zam Fredrick said, eyes still wide and wearing a disbelieving expression. "I thought our defense was good ... our offense just wasn't clicking."
USC (8-6) knew it would be tough going against UNCA's behemoth center, 7-foot-9 Kenny George. He wasn't the problem.
The rest of the Bulldogs -- and USC's own shortcomings -- were.
The Gamecocks were constantly blistered defensively, a problem for the past six games that was costing USC baskets, but not many wins. Then their decision-making, especially in the game's final minutes, after Odom preached about "finishing games" in his latest preview, fell flat.
It was decided well before Devan Downey's desperation 3-pointer, shot from the edge of the halfcourt logo, was off the mark. It was over as soon as USC took a seven-point lead and decided to force ill-advised deep shots with too much time on the shot clock.
"We need to take time off the clock, let the clock be our ally. I think I thought at least everybody understood that," Odom said. "The ensuing series of events was something out of a horror movie."
With a 58-51 lead and 3:03 to go, Evka Baniulis launched a 3-pointer from the wing. It hit nothing but UNCA's defenders, camped under the basket, and was quickly relayed to K.J. Garland, who took it coast-to-coast for a layup.
Downey tried to run into the lane and found nothing but George waiting on him. The miniscule guard -- the top of his head was about level with one of George's elbows -- tried to throw a shot over the big man but the attempt was swatted down and over to John Williams, who set up the Bulldogs' offense on the other end.
Williams fed to George, who simply turned around and jammed it.
The Gamecocks still led 58-55 with 2:05 to go but when Fredrick got the ball near the sideline, a defender lunged at him. Fredrick backed up a little too quickly and lost the handle, the ball bouncing out of bounds almost in front of Odom.
It turned into Bryan Smithson's bank shot at the other end, trimming the deficit to 58-57 with 61 seconds to play.
"No, they weren't shots we wanted," Odom said. "Absolutely not. We did not do our job, me included."
USC came out of a timeout and got the ball to Dominique Archie at the top of the key. Mindful of the hulking George in the middle, Archie spied Mike Holmes on the block and passed.
The ball bounced between Holmes' legs and out of bounds with 40.2 seconds left. Smithson got the ball in and worked the ball inside to George again, who casually flipped the ball into the hole for a 59-58 lead.
Downey tried a 3-pointer but the ball bounded off the rim. The Gamecocks were forced to foul, Smithson aced two free throws and the Bulldogs bled the clock by fouling USC immediately.
The Gamecocks were too far away from the bonus and had to take a hurried shot. The attempt, with two seconds left, was way far away from normal range and never had a realistic shot of going in.
"Late turnovers ... early shots," Archie said, listing the reasons for the loss. "We've just got to play."
UNCA last beat the Gamecocks in 1996. The Gamecocks responded by going 16-1 during the rest of the regular season, winning the SEC championship.
Archie and Fredrick said they knew about the last time and that it could happen again.
But it's obviously going to take more than Saturday's effort. A lot more.
"Yes, it can," Fredrick said. "We've already talked about it. But we've got to play a whole lot better and stand up to our challenges."
S. Carolina 58