CLEMSON -- There's no telling what the celebration will be like once South Carolina finally wins a close game.
But until that day comes, the Gamecocks will keep having to live with results like Saturday's -- a stirring rally that was on the brink of becoming a season-strengthening win, but still a loss.
"We're a team that can compete, but we're not a team good enough to win at this level," coach Dave Odom said after USC lost its fourth straight rivalry game to Clemson, 85-74. "We've got to get some of the players that are somewhat shackled or whatever ... we've got to get them producing a little bit better."
To USC's credit, the near-capacity crowd at Littlejohn Coliseum didn't -- couldn't -- begin chanting "Just like football" until 1:15 remained. That was because the Tigers' 43-26 halftime lead evaporated in a flurry of USC baskets, putting Chester's Devan Downey on the line with 2:46 to go with a chance to cut the lead to seven points.
Downey missed the free throw and Clemson (7-0) ran downcourt, throwing the ball into traffic underneath the hoop. After a brief scrum where it looked like USC's Mike Holmes might recover, Tigers freshman Demontez Stitt emerged with the ball and laid it in for a 77-67 lead.
Holmes lost the handle on the other end and Stitt again made it hurt, dishing to K.C. Rivers after a fast break. Rivers dunked and put the Tigers up 12 points, where they cruised to the finish.
"A less experienced team would have gotten rattled, but our guys didn't," Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said.
Odom spoke of his team needing to find a better emotional edge, something he admitted has been missing from the past four rivalry games. Purnell said he thought the Tigers played well, getting key contributions from everybody and winning comfortably despite the absences of injured starter James Mays and backup Sam Perry.
Downey, who survived an awful first half to finish with 19 points, had a different view.
"The team's got to play hard, some guys need to step up," the sophomore declared. "I'm not making excuses, I'm just shooting it to you real, the team's got to play harder, some guys got to step up."
USC (4-4) was blistered early, almost run out of the gym by Clemson's agressive defense. Downey couldn't find any room to operate, only scoring four points in the first half, and nobody could find the hole save Zam Fredrick, who scored 14 of the Gamecocks' first 26 points.
As USC began to find the answers, Dominique Archie was whistled to the bench with his third foul (a technical for complaining about his just-received second foul) and Fredrick followed with his third foul at the 4:25 mark. The Tigers used the departures to pad their lead to 17 at the half and USC checked in for some soul-searching.
The teams traded baskets in the second half before the Gamecocks began rallying, coming up with rebounds and taking advantage of Clemson's foul trouble. Center Trevor Booker, Stitt and freshman Jerai Grant each had to sit for a spell and with Downey finding his touch and Fredrick pumping in more of his career-high 28 points, USC cut the lead to nine, then to eight, then to eight again.
But after Downey missed the free throw -- "That just seemed to take the last gasp of air we had in us out," Odom said -- and Clemson converted two straight buckets, USC was too far behind to catch up. The miserable first half took its toll, giving the Gamecocks too steep of a mountain to climb, and the Tigers walked away with a well-earned victory.
USC was left staring at the aftermath. The Gamecocks' first three losses this year followed the same script -- hang with a big-name opponent, have a chance to win, can't do it -- and Saturday acted it out one more time.
The Gamecocks were out-rebounded 42-36, allowed Clemson 16 offensive rebounds and only had nine assists. Odom received a technical with 7:54 to go that stretched a a 12-point deficit to 14 and nobody but Fredrick played two complete halves.
Downey, who said in the preseason he was looking forward to being a part of a rebuilding program after transferring from Cincinnati, shook his head.
"I'm tired of coaches and players coming to the media and saying, 'Ah, we're young,'" Downey said. "I'm tired of that. We're talking about making the (NCAA) tournament; we won't even make the NIT the way we're playing."
n NOTE: Odom said he would check the film after Fredrick and Clemson's Terrence Oglesby got tangled up in the second half. Oglesby hacked Fredrick on a lay-up and after the collision, Fredrick appeared to cock his fist and turn his arm downward. No technical was called on the play, which Odom pointed out. "If I see it on the film, I'll certainly deal with it," Odom said.