NEW ORLEANS -- The final game of South Carolina's miserable men's basketball season played out like so many before it.
The Gamecocks trailed Alabama by 14 points with 1:08 left in the first half of Thursday's Southeastern Conference opening round game at New Orleans Arena. But they showed admirable fight and tied the game with 6:41 remaining, only to see a potential game-tying 3-pointer from leading scorer Malik Cooke bounce off the rim with 33 seconds left.
And so it was, one of the worst seasons in school history ended with a 63-57 loss that dropped USC to 10-21 -- tied for its most losses ever.
Now, the conversation shifts to fourth-year coach Darrin Horn's status. Having just completed his third consecutive losing season, will he return? Or will athletic director Eric Hyman, who attended Thursday's game and will soon meet with Horn, decide to fire Horn and pay him the $2.4 million buyout required by his contract?
Those are the questions Hyman must answer as he evaluates a coach who said he still sees hope despite USC equaling its school record loss total from the 3-21 and 8-21 seasons of 1937-38 and 1998-99, respectively. Horn was asked after the game if he believed he had accomplished enough to feel optimistic about his status for next season.
"We're going to keep plugging forward and keep doing what we have been doing to be committed to building our program," he said.
Youth hamstrung USC this season, as the Gamecocks had just one senior, Cooke, and one junior, the rarely used small forward Lakeem Jackson. They started two freshmen: power forward Anthony Gill and shooting guard Damien Leonard.
Thursday, foul trouble also plagued USC. Point guard Bruce Ellington played just 11 minutes in the second half and finished with four fouls. USC was whistled for 25, compared to just 12 for Alabama, which shot 29 free throws (making 24), versus USC's six free throw attempts. The discrepancy irritated Horn.
"Alabama is apparently the best defensive team in the country at playing really hard and really physical and not fouling," he said sarcastically afterward.
Alabama, though, made a critical shot when it needed to -- the only 3-pointer the Crimson Tide hit all game, on six attempts, which was typical of a season in which few things went USC's way. The shot came with one minute remaining, off the hands of guard Trevor Lacey, a 27.7-percent 3-point shooter, and it put Alabama up by five.
While Alabama prepares to face Florida in today's quarterfinals, the Gamecocks will travel home and set about bettering themselves for next season. They haven't endured four straight losing seasons since 1991-92 to 1994-95, their first four years in the SEC. Like their coach, the Gamecocks believe there are brighter days ahead.
"I'm definitely excited," Gill said. "We know what we need to do this summer. We're definitely going to get a lot better."