COLUMBIA — The ball caromed off the rim, toward the corner of the court. Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes reached for it, fending off three South Carolina players, using every bit of his broad-shouldered, 6-8, 270-pound body to snatch the offensive rebound.
There was 2:29 left in Sunday’s game, and Tennessee clung to a one-point lead. Once again, USC was in a game near the end and had a chance to reverse the sour results of so many late-game situations like this against Southeastern Conference opponents.
But the Gamecocks were bending. They had just played lazy perimeter defense on Tennessee’s previous possession, allowing a 3-pointer that put the Volunteers up one. Now, after Stokes’ effort, the ball was making its way toward 3-point specialist Skylar McBee, who was wide open in the corner.
USC had lost McBee in the scramble, and what followed was predictable. McBee swished a 3, putting Tennessee up four and forcing the Gamecocks to play catchup. That is a difficult task for their inefficient offense, which was again a culprit Sunday, as the Volunteers won, 66-61, and handed USC its fourth straight loss.
The Gamecocks (12-11, 2-8 SEC) played better Sunday than in their previous three games. They got another strong performance from freshman wing Michael Carrera, whose 18 points and 11 rebounds marked his fourth double-double of the season, second in SEC play. Carrera, who is 6-5 and 212 pounds, defended Stokes intensely for much of the game, but Stokes did have 20 points, 10 rebounds and that critical offensive board that gnawed at USC coach Frank Martin.
“Winners make plays,” Martin said. “I don’t care what you did for 38 minutes. If we want to win, you’ve got to go get that rebound. That’s why they won. Stokes went against three guys and I didn’t see him fall down. I don’t care how big you are. I don’t care how little you are. Guys make plays when it’s time to make plays. He made a play. Our guys didn’t.”
USC got too little on Sunday from point guard Bruce Ellington for a second straight game. He shot 1 of 9 and scored six points, following a 1-of-8, nine-point dud at Kentucky.
Moreover, USC’s 39.1 percent shooting marked the sixth time in the past seven games that it has failed to crack 40 percent.
“It’s embarrassing,” Martin said. “I had junior varsity teams that ran better offense than we run. Everyone stands around. The ball sticks. We practice every day running (in transition). We don’t run. I don’t know what to tell you.
“If you can’t pass, you can’t be a good offensive team, and passing is a problem on our team. I’m not calling a whole lot of plays because I don’t want them bogged down. I’m trying to play really simplistic through our base offense, and we can’t even do that right now. Any time we face any resistance, we give in. And that’s a problem and that has to change.”
Sunday was the sixth time in 10 SEC contests that USC has been in a one-possession game entering the final two minutes. The Gamecocks are now 1-5, but the fact that they are playing more of those games than 39-point blowout losses, which Florida handed them, encourages Martin as he winds down his first season and continues the rebuilding process.
“We didn’t show up here to run a 50-yard dash,” Martin said. “You can’t sprint while you’re in a crib. Right now, we’re in a crib. We’re acting like little kids, and we’ve got the discipline of little kids. To become a man, you’ve got to go through these kinds of things.
“I’m the eternal optimist. If every game we played was like the Florida game, I’d probably be calling people back (home) in Florida to see if they need a real estate agent somewhere, because that means that we’re too far away, and I’m probably not going to be able to get this thing done. (But) we’ve had a chance to win the game. That tells me it’s right there.”