South Carolina 56, Alabama 54
COLUMBIA -- Bruce Ellington caught the inbounds pass from Malik Cooke and burst into the lane past Alabama's Levi Randolph. Ellington laid the ball up, and everybody in Colonial Life Arena watched it, hoping it wouldn't bounce off the rim like so many of South Carolina's shots already had Wednesday night.
This time, the ball stayed true, glancing off the backboard and through the net with 1.3 seconds left, breaking a 54-all tie in a thrilling game that included 13 ties and 11 lead changes.
Ellington and teammate Malik Cooke raced across the court toward the student section. They soared into the air, bumping sides. Ellington pounded his fist against his chest. He knew how desperately the Gamecocks needed this game. They got it moments later, when Anthony Gill contested JaMychal Green's 18-foot jump shot at the buzzer, which fell short and gave the Gamecocks their first Southeastern Conference win of the season.
USC's 56-54 victory guarantees nothing for the rest of the year, but it did let the Gamecocks avoid their first 0-5 start in SEC play since 1998-99. And for a team that finished last season by going 2-11, all against SEC teams, any win is a huge step forward.
"Happy to get that monkey off our back," Cooke said.
He also talked about the relief the Gamecocks felt in snapping an eight-game SEC losing streak, dating to last season. And he deserves loads of credit for it, as he led USC with 18 points, his second-most in 22 career SEC games.
So, too, does USC's offensive rebounding, its strength all season. The Gamecocks grabbed 19 offensive boards, and that's how you win while shooting 22 of 68, because Alabama took just 49 shots, making 21. No USC player was better on the offensive glass than Fort Dorchester High graduate RJ Slawson, who had six offensive boards.
"I think when RJ Slawson's mind is right, he's as good of an offensive rebounder as there is in the league," said USC coach Darrin Horn.
But it was a play by another Lowcountry product, Ellington, that stands as the shining moment in a season that was teetering on misery. In the timeout before Ellington's game-winning layup, Horn gave the former Berkeley High star an option: shoot or pass. It was Ellington's call. Horn said later that he just wanted Ellington "attacking the basket."
Ellington didn't have much time to decide. Just 5.4 seconds remained when the Gamecocks broke their huddle. After catching the inbounds pass, Ellington noticed Randolph aggressively step toward him. Ellington thought, "I'm fast enough to get by him." He did.
USC was in position to win because, on the previous possession, Damontre Harris tipped away an entry pass by Alabama's Trevor Releford with 23 seconds left -- a sequence that tinged Alabama coach Anthony Grant's voice with annoyance as he said afterward, "You can't turn the ball over in those situations."
Horn talked Tuesday about wanting USC to at least be in a position to win the game with five minutes left, something that hadn't happened in its first four SEC games. This time, the Gamecocks didn't fade early in the second half, as they had in their previous three games. Neither team led by more than four in the second half.
And there was Horn, after USC went up by two with 6:09 left, turning to the sparse crowd and shouting to encourage the fans to cheer. Enthusiasm for Horn's program has waned this season, but the fans responded to Horn's urging, and his players gave them what they had longed to see.
"We need our fans," Horn said. "We need some atmosphere. I appreciate them finally getting up and doing that."