KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - South Carolina's hopes to make things different in the second half of the SEC season disappeared in a flurry of 3-pointers.
Tennessee canned 10 shots from long range in a 69-57 win on Wednesday, four on four straight possessions that turned a first half where USC led for the majority into a 14-3 Volunteers run. The Gamecocks tried to re-adjust at halftime, then saw Trae Golden and Skylar McBee pour in another two 3s as UT leaped ahead.
From there, it was predictable. USC (9-14, 1-8 SEC), as it has shown all year, doesn't have the firepower to shoot itself back from a double-digit deficit. USC did cut the lead to three points with four minutes to play, but missed jumpers and missed free throws, plus a 7-0 UT run, took their toll. The Gamecocks dropped their 10th straight to Tennessee and guaranteed themselves of their 16th non-winning season in 21 years of SEC participation.
And after dropping one of the games that it was counting on winning in order to show improvement at the end of the season, the road only gets harder. Arkansas, undefeated at home this year, waits in Fayetteville on Saturday.
"We gave up a barrage of 3s," coach Darrin Horn sighed. "It completely changed the game for us."
The Gamecocks thought they had turned a bit of a corner in three straight games where they ran at will, played tight defense and gave themselves a chance. But that's disappeared, in an expected blowout to No. 1 Kentucky, and now by allowing 10 3-pointers to a team ranked ninth in the SEC in 3-point percentage coming in.
There are no clear answers in sight. USC can't get consistent scoring from anybody and can't play consistent defense on anybody.
Horn says that his team isn't losing hope, but the Gamecocks have lost four straight and eight of nine. Frustration is becoming more and more evident as the games go on.
"I think there is frustration," Horn said. "But at the same time, the way you eliminate that frustration is you don't give up the 3s that we gave up at the end of the half. Those are really simple things that are within our control."
Horn said that one 3 was keyed by a switch that was supposed to happen and didn't, and another was due to lack of communication. Whatever the reason, the hole they dug for the Gamecocks was too much to overcome late.
Ellington made the free throw and USC only trailed 58-55. But Tennessee (12-12, 4-5) got to the line and made it count over the duration, while Anthony Gill and Brenton Williams each missed open shots.
The lead stretched back to five, then seven, then nine. USC ran out of time. Again.
"We just had a couple of defensive breakdowns," said Ellington, who led the team with 12 points but shot 5-of-16. "Of course it's frustrating. But we just have to keep fighting."
As usual, USC was led by points from surprising sources and got hardly anything from players it was counting on. Damien Leonard had his second straight double-figure game, scoring 11 with three 3-pointers, while Williams heated up late for 11 points.
But Harris, playing at an all-SEC caliber over the past three games, had two points. Cooke woke up late to end with nine, but he only had two for the game's first 30 minutes. Gill, 12-of-20 over his last three games, didn't start for the first time all year and had one point on 0-for-6 shooting.
USC had no one to give the ball to and know it could score. Those scant three points were the difference, the Gamecocks knowing that one more shout-out on transition could have wiped away one of Tennessee's 10 3-pointers.
Another something to work on, and hope that it's fixed before the next game. Along with all of the other somethings that USC has tried to work on all season.
"For about 16 minutes, we were in great shape," Horn said. "We got down in double figures on the road, and in this league, that's hard to deal with."