College Sports

Vols end USC's season

ATLANTA -- The locker in the corner of the South Carolina locker room looked empty, until one looked all the way down to see a pair of elbows draped around the knees. Dominique Archie sat there, barely visible, taking it all in.

The end of a season. A near-upset of one of the nation's best teams. A close loss, one that served as the microcosm of a long and tough season.

"It's like a heavyweight fight: Every time you get back up you get knocked back down," Archie said.

But this was the knockout.

The South Carolina men's basketball team finished its season playing the what-if game, much like it had so many other times. It fell 89-87 to fourth-ranked Tennessee in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament.

It marked the end for coach Dave Odom, who announced his retirement Jan. 18, effective at the end of the season. That became Friday, but not with the whimper it seemed the Gamecocks were going out with a few days earlier, but a game that left the Georgia Dome buzzing.

It fit this year's Gamecock team perfectly: Close but not enough. It finished with a 14-18 record, but seven losses were by five points or fewer.

This last one seemed to be one of the hardest to take. Tennessee (29-3) had routed USC twice during the regular season, including by 33 five days before. But the Gamecocks played outstanding Friday, and had a one-point lead as the final seconds ticked down.

Then, as happened often this season, the opponent hit a big shot. Tennessee star Chris Lofton drained a 25-foot 3-pointer with 11.4 seconds left. USC's Devan Downey was then short on his own 3, though the rebound went out of bounds off Tennessee. After a timeout, Archie got the inbounds but Tennessee's Wayne Chism got his hands on the ball, preventing Archie from getting a shot off.

"You know, I could be happier if we had won, but I couldn't be prouder," Odom said. "The game offered whatever you wanted. I mean, there were spectacular plays, there were answers by each team, on occasion there was decent defense."

The game featured six ties and 10 lead changes. Tennessee seemed in control when it started out with a 9-0 lead, but USC took a late first-half lead, then led by as many as four in the second half.

"We were tougher," Downey said. "We weren't going to get out-toughed. They came out early 9-0, we fought back. It's all about fight. ... We wanted it. So did they."

Tennessee got back up six, but USC rallied again. And with a minute left, Archie slammed through a missed Zam Fredrick runner, and the Gamecocks had an 85-84 lead. Most of the crowd, about half Tennessee and half USC or other teams, was on its feet for all of the final minute, sensing the upset.

When Tennessee's Tyler Smith made a layup, Archie answered, and Tennessee called timeout with 16.7 seconds left. Then Lofton drilled his shot, rolling off a screen at the top of the key.

"With Chris he gets that look in his eye, we know to get him the ball, and he had it when coach drew this play up, so we got him the ball," Tennessee's JaJuan Smith said.

"It was unbelievable how Lofton hit that," Gamecock forward Evka Baniulis said. "We really believed we could have won, and we were so close. That was one of the most emotional games I've ever had in my life."

Afterward, Fredrick started ticking off the close losses at the beginning of the season -- leads of nine against George Mason, 10 against N.C. State. He only got about one-fifth of the season, then gave up.

"It was a very long season," said Downey, who on Friday broke the SEC single-season record for assists. "It was hard. But through it all, we fought. When people thought we were throwing in the towel, we fought. It just let me know our guys have heart."

SEC TOURNAMENT

Thursday's games

South Carolina 77, LSU 73

Vanderbilt 93, Auburn 82

Alabama 80, Florida 69

Georgia 97, Ole Miss 95 (OT)

Friday's games

Tennessee 89, South Carolina 87

Arkansas 81, Vanderbilt 75

Mississippi State 69, Alabama 67 (OT)

Georgia vs. Kentucky, late

Today's games

Tennessee vs. Arkansas (WAXN, cable channel 10 in Rock Hill), 1 p.m.

Mississippi State vs. TBA (WAXN), 3:15 p.m.

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