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March 13, 2009TAMPA, Fla. -- It's going to be a long two days.
South Carolina lost 82-68 to Mississippi State on Friday, dropping its first SEC tournament game and staying perched squarely on the bubble for next week's NCAA tournament. Coach Darrin Horn lobbied for it, his players did as well, but they're not the ones who will make the decision.
That will be made by the tournament selection committee on Sunday afternoon, and the Gamecocks (21-9) have no choice but to wait. They knew they needed to win a game or two in Tampa, they knew the sooner their name stopped being mentioned, there would be the danger of their resume being re-hashed to decide if it was tournament-worthy.
And they still lost.
"I don't really care who wins, because we can't win any more games," forward Mike Holmes said. "We didn't play hard enough."
Which is a prerequisite when attempting to win in March.
Playing a team they'd lost to in the regular season because of poor 3-point defense, the Gamecocks allowed the Bulldogs to hit 8-of-15 from long range. The first four whistled through because they were wide-open shots; the last four hit were decently defended but were shot by a team in the zone.
The last two turned a 55-all game with 8:16 to play into a 62-55 Mississippi State lead, and when the Bulldogs continued to own the backboards (50 rebounds, to USC's 36), the Gamecocks' trip to the waiting room was decided.
Holmes and Devan Downey came out for the last time, collapsing into their seats with heads down and hands folded. The tomb-like locker room was the same way, the Gamecocks still wearing their uniforms and dazed expressions.
"We just lost it," Evka Baniulis said.
With it might have been denied the chance to make what's already been a record-setting, memorable season an even brighter one. First-year coach Darrin Horn took an undermanned bunch picked to finish fifth in the SEC East to a share of the divisional title, winning 21 games and bursting into the NCAA picture.
But the Gamecocks never clinched that spot. Upsets popped up all over the country and USC's chances took hit after hit. It made winning in the SEC tournament imperative, and while nothing has been decided, the Gamecocks' confidence that they've done enough is waning.
"I've been saying for a long time, I don't see how you don't take one of the top three or four teams from the SEC in the NCAA tournament when you go back and look at our overall season," Horn said. "I think we've proven that we're definitely worthy of that. But those decisions are beyond our control."
So USC will wait, and wonder what happened on Friday.
"The defensive intensity was just lacking in the second half," Downey said. "Everything we did in the first half just went out the window for the second half."
The Gamecocks began well, hitting their shots and taking advantage of Mississippi State (21-12) pushing the ball inside. SEC Defensive Player of the Year Jarvis Varnado got his hands on the ball a lot but couldn't convert, and with the Bulldogs staying away from the arc, USC took quick advantage.
It couldn't last -- USC knew that but figured as long as it limited the long-range shots and made a few of its own, it would be OK. Barry Stewart canned the first 12 minutes in but USC still led by six, and then it happened.
Holmes was playing a fine game but went down hard after a rebound. He eventually had to walk to the locker room for an evaluation on his right ankle, which turned out to be a tape job away from returning.
While he was gone, the Bulldogs began pounding inside against overwhelmed Austin Steed and Sam Muldrow, who already had two fouls. MSU worked inside and out and crept closer, but USC's Zam Fredrick wasn't prepared to let it be that easy.
Fredrick scored seven of his team-high 20 points in the last seven minutes, propelling the Gamecocks to a 36-32 halftime advantage. Holmes had returned and was getting back to his old self -- there was no problem.
The Bulldogs came out firing, and once Stewart began hitting, USC was in trouble. The Gamecocks adjusted and zealously stuck to their men, but shooters in a groove don't quit shooting because there's a hand or two in their face.
The nets kept popping. When MSU missed, USC allowed an offensive board and putback. When MSU hit, USC couldn't equal.
In panic mode as the Bulldogs stretched their lead, Fredrick kept firing and the rest of the team kept trying. The 55-55 tie was the last gasp -- Stewart connected and MSU was ahead to stay.
The Gamecocks desperately tried to even the game from the 3-point line but couldn't convert. They were 5-of-22 -- Fredrick, Downey and Brandis Raley-Ross each missed on one possession before Dominique Archie finally got fouled -- and the rally never got off the ground.
Fredrick finished with 20 while Downey had 11 and Archie 16. Holmes had eight points, nine rebounds and four blocks.
All responded the same way -- big deal. Mississippi State deserved to win because it outplayed USC.
"(Stewart) got his confidence up," Fredrick said. "He was feeling it. He made some tough shots, couple of them with a hand in his face."
"What you want me to say?," Downey said of guard Dee Bost. "As far as I'm concerned, he outplayed me two games. He won two games, I didn't win any."
Downey buried his head in his jersey for a second after leaving the game, as if he could somehow wish away the final score. He sat in the corner of the locker room, staring at the floor.
Nothing to do now but wait.
"Like coach said, our defensive intensity, it was just lacking in the second half," he said. "We didn't do a good job of merging defense, talking, communicating."