COLUMBIA -- South Carolina has now played reasonably well in essentially half of its first three Southeastern Conference games -- as in one good half in each game. In losses to Kentucky and Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks experienced sluggish first halves. They moved past that Saturday night against Florida, in front of an energetic home crowd.
But it was a disastrous start to the second half that doomed them this time. They lost to the No. 19 Gators, 79-65, and fell to 0-3 in the SEC for the first time since 2006-07, when they started 0-4. The Gamecocks have a good chance of avoiding that in their next game, Saturday at Auburn, one of the league's bottom feeders.
"We've got to come out and put two halves together," said forward Malik Cooke, USC's only senior.
Even Auburn will exploit the kind of stretch USC had to begin Saturday's second half. The Gamecocks led 41-40 at halftime after making 15 of 24 shots in the first half. Against Kentucky, they scored 18 first- half points and shot 8 of 32. Against Vanderbilt, they scored 12 and shot 5 of 26.
On Saturday, though, Colonial Life Arena buzzed from the tip, and right on through halftime. USC hit 6 of 11 3-pointers in the first half, including three from about 24 to 26 feet, nearly matching the 8-of-14 3-point outing by Florida, the SEC's best team from beyond the arc.
At halftime, USC honored its football team for an 11-2 season. Coach Steve Spurrier introduced the players by pointing to each with the cane he is using after undergoing knee replacement surgery earlier this month. The fans roared when he punctuated the ceremony by saying, "We still haven't won an SEC championship. When we come out of Atlanta huggin' and high-fivin', that's when you'll know we hit the Promised Land!"
Then the air came out of the building. The halftime lead turned into 59-44 deficit at the 10:26 mark of the second half, as the Gamecocks made just one of their first 13 shots. They trailed by double figures for the final 12:27. USC finished 8 of 31 in the second half, 3 of 13 on 3-pointers.
Coach Darrin Horn thought his team's defense didn't lag as much early in the second half as it did to start the second half against Vanderbilt. In that game, he noticed the 12-point first half negatively affecting his team's psyche. But when you're stuck on three points for a half until the 9:12 mark, as USC was Saturday, you can't help but notice.
"There's no question that it did impact us," Horn said. "That's a hard thing to do, even for a veteran team. When the ball's not going in for a long period of time, it's hard to stay at a high level defensively."
He noted that Florida having several capable outside shooters was a tough matchup for USC, which is still growing in its new 2-3 matchup zone defense. Zone teams generally struggle against opponents with talented perimeter players.
What Horn didn't say, but what remains obvious, is that everybody expected his team struggle with opening against Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida -- and that 0-3 should come as little surprise. He said he doesn't sense discouragement in his locker room, but acknowledged, "The challenge is: At some point, you need to see one go in the win column."