COLUMBIA-- Perhaps it's fitting that Dave Odom's probable last home game ended the same as so many before it -- South Carolina had a big win in its sights, fell apart at a crucial time and lost.
Kentucky outlasted the Gamecocks 71-63 on Wednesday, giving Odom a sour farewell as he walked off the Colonial Center court.
USC was way behind in the second half, cut the deficit to five with just under four minutes to play and collapsed on two straight key possessions as the Wildcats ruined Dwayne Day's Senior Day.
Kentucky (17-11, 11-4 SEC) left with another win added to its bubble NCAA tournament campaign. USC (13-16, 5-10) has to beat No. 4 Tennessee on Sunday and make a miraculous run through the SEC tournament to have any hope of reaching a postseason tournament.
"Those were my exact words to the guys before the game," said Devan Downey, held to a scant nine points before fouling out. "'We got nothing to lose.' Then we really dig ourselves an early hole in the first half ..."
And once again, it was too deep to climb out of.
The second-best defensive team in the SEC suffocated Downey and held Dominique Archie to three points. On the other hand, a struggling Kentucky offense, missing injured forward Patrick Patterson, found the cure for exactly what was hurting.
Joe Crawford torched the nets for a career-high 35 points and Ramel Bradley added 20, more than enough to set up a 14-point lead with nine minutes to play. When USC began to creep back in the game, Crawford and Bradley combined for 11 back-breaking points during the closing minutes.
It added up to another defeat, completing USC's home record at 8-9 and leaving the Gamecocks teetering on the edge of another last-place finish in the SEC East. If Georgia (4-11) beats Ole Miss on Saturday and USC loses to the Vols, the two will be tied for the cellar.
A coin flip would decide who gets the No. 6 East seed for the SEC tournament.
"We just have to take it game by game and day by day," said Day, who hit an early jumper for his only two points. "We just have to go to Tennessee and play our best, then do our best in the tournament."
Down 56-42 with 8:52 to play, USC caught fire. Brandis Raley-Ross took an inbounds pass and went all the way to the hoop, ramming the ball through the rim with authority to get the crowd back in it.
Mike Holmes, who had another fine game with 16 points and 10 boards, missed a short jumper, but Sam Muldrow tipped it in and USC was only down 10. The lead was cut to nine when Zam Fredrick, the Gamecocks' leading scorer with 19 points, hit the back end of two free throws.
Fredrick inbounded to Muldrow and the freshman took off for a dunk, Raley-Ross following with a 3-pointer. Fredrick canned a circus three from somewhere near Blossom Street to put the Gamecocks within seven and Holmes took a nice feed from Downey to cut it to 62-57.
But just as they had so many times before, the Gamecocks couldn't get closer. Downey tried to spin inside for a layup and got it shoved back in his face. Fredrick kept the ball too long on the perimeter, allowing the Wildcats to zone in on him, and turned the ball over.
Bradley threw up a prayer with four seconds on the shot clock and watched it bounce once, twice and through the hoop for a 3-pointer. He followed with a strolling fast-break layup after the Gamecocks' defense was caught napping.
By the time USC began fouling and trying to hit 3-pointers on the other end, it was too late. An emotional win for Day and Odom vanished quicker than a South Carolina snowfall.
"It was too much Joe Crawford, and too much Ramel Bradley," Odom sighed. "Who knows? Maybe we'll get a chance to play them again in the tournament. I hope so."
Odom, who was recognized before the game among his family and friends, including former boss Terry Holland, didn't burst into tears or buckle when answering questions about his probable last game in Columbia. He handled it the same way he did when he first announced his retirement -- glib, matter-of-fact, still smiling.
"I kind of promised myself, win or lose tonight, when I got to my car, I was going to put the game to bed," he said. "I was going to think about all the rides I've taken, 99 percent of them by myself, and thoughts that I've had, people I've met, games we've played, preparations ...
"Just before I get home, I'll kind of slap myself in the face and then I'll say, 'We've got another practice Friday, another Saturday, a great opportunity Sunday, let's get ready.'"
S. Carolina 63