LEXINGTON, Ky. -- They trudged into the back room at Rupp Arena, the three leaders and their coach, 30 minutes after a loss that for them was achingly familiar. They were there to answer questions, but by this point in a descending season, there was little new to say.
Another big lead, followed by poor play in the clutch. Another loss for the South Carolina men's basketball team, this time 78-70 at Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.
"I guess you could say it is getting old," Gamecocks forward Dominique Archie said. "But we've got no one to blame but ourselves."
The only new part was that South Carolina's overall record (9-10) fell under .500 for the first time since last season, when it finished 14-16.
But if the Gamecocks (1-4 in the SEC) had any ability to close, this season's record would be a lot better. They have now lost five games in which they had a lead of five-or-more in the second half, lost another after leading by 10 in the first half, and held a three-point, second-half lead at Vanderbilt.
Now add to the list Kentucky (9-9, 3-2), which came back after trailing most of the second half, including by seven with 14:30 left.
"This is a team that can win a lot of games," Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said of South Carolina. "They had one tough outing in conference play (against Tennessee). They could have won on Wednesday. They could have won at Vanderbilt. They could have won today."
But they didn't, and free throws were a big reason. Kentucky shot 23 (making 18), while USC once again hardly got to the line. Devan Downey's three shots from the line were the only ones for his team, which is a good free-throw shooting team but struggles to even get there.
Part of that is the reliance on 3-point shooting, which was borne out Saturday: The Gamecocks shot 30 times beyond the arc (making 12), compared to Kentucky's 8-for-13 shooting from there.
Kentucky also had a much better inside game, led by Patrick Patterson, whom USC coach Dave Odom called the best freshman post player he's seen at Kentucky.
But South Carolina countered with its 3-pointers, which were the key to its best moment: Down 39-32 in the final minute of the first half, it scored the next 14 points, including four 3-pointers to open the second half. Three were by guard Zam Fredrick.
The run quieted the Rupp crowd, and the Gamecocks led or were briefly tied for the next 12 minutes. When Kentucky finally broke through with about five minutes left, the Gamecock offense sputtered, as it has near the end of so many other games.
While the Wildcats went on a 12-1 run over a five-minute span, the Gamecocks went 0-for-6 from the field with one turnover.
"We do simple stuff like not make passes, shot selection, stuff you learn in grade school," Archie said. "So there's no excuses when stuff like that happens."
Getting to the free throw line would also help. Odom admitted his team would make more fouls by playing smaller, but said his team needed to do more to draw them. As for the officials?
"I asked the referees about it, and they said, 'Dave you've been doing this a long time; we've got two different games going on here. We've got one on the inside and one on the outside,'" Odom said. "Well, I'm going to buy that up to a certain point. When you shoot 30 3s and they shoot 13, it's a two-for-one tradeoff.
"I do think there was more body contact than, well, I can't get too much into that. Just suffice to say, we have got to get to the free throw line more. And so we've got to find a way to force that."
Odom called it "a really tough loss," saying his team "poured everything we had into this game." The three players echoed that, praising the team's effort, but unable to explain why it played the way it did when it mattered most.
"I wish I could explain it," Fredrick said. "I wouldn't be having this conversation right now. It seems like we always get cold when the other team gets hot. We've got to make key shots when they make their run."
S. Carolina 70