COLUMBIA -- Wednesday night's game between South Carolina and Georgia was one that very few people around the college basketball world would pay much mind -- a forgettable matchup of two of the Southeastern Conference's worst teams.
But USC's 57-56 win could wind up being one that these young Gamecocks will remember during the final weeks of what has been a dismal season.
Thanks to a final-moments shot by their leading scorer and lone senior, Malik Cooke, and a block by a promising sophomore, Damontre Harris, the Gamecocks avoided their first ever 1-10 start in SEC play, snapped a five-game losing streak and began a week that could end with their first back-to-back wins since Dec. 31 and Jan. 3.
Wednesday was a game that USC (10-15, 2-9 SEC) needed to win, coach Darrin Horn had said, and his players responded accordingly. They found themselves down 56-55 when Georgia's Gerald Robinson hit a 3-pointer with 41.7 seconds left. After Horn called timeout, Cooke got the ball in the corner in front of USC's bench and lumbered into the lane.
"I hated to see the ball in his hands," said Georgia coach Mark Fox, who knows Cooke's game because Cooke played for Fox at Nevada in 2007-08 and 2008-09 before transferring to USC.
During the timeout, Horn told his players to "just keep the floor spread." He didn't design a specific play because he didn't want them to force anything too "precise" against Georgia's zone defense. As the Gamecocks passed the ball around for about 15 seconds after the timeout, Cooke said he thought they "were being kind of passive."
Cooke has been USC's leader during this trying season, staying steady throughout, Horn said. So when he got the ball in the corner and saw it would require a tight squeeze for him to reach the basket, he decided to go for it. And at this point in the season for this team, why not? He got close to the rim, leaned in and made the shot with 19.4 seconds left, putting USC up 57-56.
"Nobody deserves to make a play like that more than Malik does," Horn said. "He did get in a little bit of a tough spot and made a tough shot."
Fox decided not to call timeout. Robinson sprinted, put his head down, drove the baseline and leaped toward the basket. Harris used every bit of his 6-9 length to block Robinson's shot.
After USC's Bruce Ellington missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw trip, Georgia had one more chance. But it ended with a missed 3, a tied-up ball with 0.2 seconds left and Harris deflecting Georgia's resulting baseline inbounds pass before the Bulldogs (12-13, 3-8) could even think about a miracle tip-in.
USC has never finished worse than 3-13 in the SEC, and with LSU (15-10, 5-6) coming to town Saturday, the Gamecocks could reach the three-win mark.
They have four regular season games left after that, including a trip to Georgia, so they will get opportunities to put into practice something they started saying to each other lately: "No more."
The mantra comes from an obvious feeling: "We just really were tired of losing," Cooke said.
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