COLUMBIA -- A bandage covered the one-inch gash above Malik Cooke's left eye that South Carolina's medical staff glued shut earlier Saturday afternoon. Cooke said his eye, which met the wrong end of an inadvertent elbow, was "feeling fine." His puffy eyelid indicated otherwise.
Cooke, the Gamecocks' leading scorer and only senior, had just played perhaps his best game since debuting at USC last season after transferring from Nevada. In a 74-66 loss to second-ranked Ohio State, he shot 6 of 10 and scored 21 points, one shy of his USC career high.
The Gamecocks (4-6) performed admirably against an elite team -- an encouraging sign for a team that needed one. They led by six points a minute and a half into the second half. They never led after the 15:54 mark, but trailed by just three with 10:59 left and were never down by more than 13.
"We just learned a lot about ourselves today, that we're a bunch of fighters," Cooke said.
The Gamecocks made 48 percent of their shots and played "by far" their best offensive game of the season against "by far" the best defensive team they've played to this point, said USC coach Darrin Horn.
But in the end, USC didn't rebound enough and Ohio State (10-1) had too much talent, even with its leading scorer, power forward Jared Sullinger, playing just six minutes, all in the first half, because of a bone bruise on his left foot that he sustained when he accidentally got kicked.
The Gamecocks were outrebounded 34-19. Usually capable on the offensive glass, they pulled down just seven of their 25 missed shots. Ohio State missed 27 shots and rebounded 15 of them -- three more than the number of defensive rebounds USC grabbed.
With Sullinger out and USC's defense focusing on stopping guard William Buford, who scored 17 points, sophomore small forward Deshaun Thomas took advantage of opportunities for open shots and scored a career-best 30 points, including 20 in the second half, on 13-of-16 shooting.
Thomas might have entered the game as Ohio State's third-leading scorer, behind Sullinger and Buford, but he is plenty talented. He was the No. 22 overall recruit in the Class of 2010, according to Rivals.com, and usually the team with the most talented players wins.
Still, the Gamecocks did not wilt while playing in front of a larger-than-usual home crowd that might have included more Ohio State fans, who were so much louder than the USC faithful that Sullinger wrote on Twitter afterward that it "felt like a home game."
The Gamecocks led 33-29 at halftime -- just the third time all season that they've had a halftime lead. Sullinger was already off to a hospital for X-rays, which were negative. Ohio State coach Thad Matta joked later that he wanted to determine if USC's doctors were tending to Sullinger, because "we thought they may tie him down to the X-ray machine."
His biggest actual concern was containing Cooke, who scored 10 points in the first half, when power forward Anthony Gill sat for the final 18 minutes after getting two fouls. Then, two minutes into the second half, Cooke caught an elbow from Thomas while reaching for a rebound. Blood streamed down Cooke's face as he walked off the court. He looked annoyed.
"I wanted to come back really bad," he said.
The Gamecocks led by four when he left and trailed by five when he returned five minutes later. They never led again.
With Cooke out, "our team just didn't seem to have the same confidence that it had," Horn said. "He's so important to us. Malik brings us a presence and a confidence that you would expect from a senior. I think it's really as simple as that."