COLUMBIA -- It would have been heartbreaking if it weren't so familiar.
South Carolina's Devan Downey twisted his tiny body through the lane and finger-rolled a layup into the hole, giving the Gamecocks a 65-64 lead over No. 23 Vanderbilt on Saturday. All USC had to do was hold on for six seconds and it would have its first three-game SEC winning streak since the 2003-04 season, not to mention two straight wins over ranked teams for the first time since joining the league.
And then Vandy's Jermaine Beal took the inbounds pass, sped 75 feet and pulled up for the game-winning shot, almost completely uncontested.
Game and winning streak over, 66-65.
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Yet another high-profile opponent and confidence-boosting win off the hook.
It was over so fast the Gamecocks still looked shocked, 20 minutes afterward.
"I'd rather be blown out than lose like this," said Evka Baniulis tonelessly, after scoring a season-high 19 points on almost perfect shooting. "It was amazing ... everybody was kind of scared to foul him."
"Sometimes, when you lose a basketball game like we just lost ... you search for answers," coach Dave Odom said. "Sometimes, there's just no answers."
It has seemed that way for the Gamecocks under Odom. Saturday was yet another of the multitude of close losses that have seemed to define his seven-year tenure.
But after USC had won two straight, the last a gritty win at Ole Miss where Dominique Archie nailed the game-winning 3-pointer with just under six seconds to play, it looked as if the Gamecocks (11-11, 3-5 SEC) had finally shed their funk.
"I can't really explain it," Downey said. "Just bad communication on defense."
The answers Odom was searching for were hard to find, but most of the reasons were because of the lack of defense on the last play. Zam Fredrick was running behind Beal the entire way up the court and Archie never got in position to challenge Beal in the lane, perhaps fearing a foul.
Odom nor Downey blamed any one player, saying it was a team lapse and a team loss.
But another fine effort again turned into another loss.
"They made one more huge play than we did at the right time," Odom said. "They left us no time to answer."
Each team struggled to score while its best shooters were held in check. Downey, who suffered a mild concussion in practice Friday, was held scoreless until the 11:56 mark of the second half and Vandy's Shan Foster had just eight points at the half.
The Commodores (20-4, 5-4) rained 3-pointers and the Gamecocks echoed, combining for 49 attempts and just 18 makes. Baniulis drained all five of his, and Foster heated up, knocking the last of his 21 points down with a 3-pointer for a 64-63 lead with 50 seconds to play.
USC didn't give up, intentionally fouling A.J. Ogilvy. Ogilvy rewarded USC's strategy by clanking the front ends of two straight one-and-ones, leaving Archie to get the last rebound and fire the ball to Downey.
Downey looked like BJ McKie as he darted into the lane and back out, elevating and kissing the ball off the glass at the last second. But with six full seconds to play, Beal got the inbounds pass and found nobody in front of him.
"Got to meet him before he gets to halfcourt," Odom said. "We didn't."
Beal never hesitated and scored with 0.6 seconds left. It was his only field goal of the game.
Downey's desperation heave was well short and USC was again forced to salute its student section with a grimace, no win in sight.
"It just hurts, period," Downey said. "Seems like every time we get right there, something always happens."