COLUMBIA -- It's been that kind of season for Auburn -- embarrassing losses to Campbell and Jacksonville and an 0-6 Southeastern Conference start. So it seemed like another blow of bad karma when Tigers forward Rob Chubb got to the arena Saturday and didn't have his size-16 shoes.
Nobody else on the team wears shoes that big, so Chubb thought he'd have to play with his toes curled up in a pair more than a size too small. But South Carolina (12-7, 3-3 SEC) let Chubb borrow a pair of its shoes and the sophomore ended up scoring a career-high 18 points as the Tigers
(8-13, 1-6) beat the Gamecocks 79-64.
"Beat them in their own shoes. I'll take that," a smiling Chubb said after the game.
The Tigers hardly looked like a team that lost its first six SEC games by an average of 12 points. They came in with an RPI worse than 300 and lost five times to teams in leagues that will likely have just one NCAA bid.
Auburn's stifling zone, switched up with sharp man-to-man defensive pressure, made the difference. South Carolina shot 7-of-33 from outside the arc and managed just 20 points in the paint. Auburn had 42 points in the paint and only attempted five 3-pointers.
"We don't have the personnel to stand and go toe-to-toe with many teams, especially not in this league. So we've had to do a good job of keeping teams off-balance with changing defenses from man to zone," first-year Auburn coach Tony Barbee said.
The usually poor-shooting Tigers made 26 of their 34 free throws and outrebounded the best-rebounding team in the SEC 47-35.
"It feels good to get that bitter taste of losing out of our mouth. It's something we don't want to taste again," said Josh Wallace, who also had a career high with 17 points.
South Carolina looked sharp early, taking a 15-8 lead without much effort. But the Tigers went on a 17-5 run, taking a lead they would not relinquish.
"We said from day one that there would be some games that felt like year one and I thought it looked like it today," Gamecocks coach Darrin Horn said.
Ramon Galloway led the Gamecocks with 20 points, starting for the injured Lakeem Jackson. Sam Muldrow added 14 points and nine rebounds, while South Carolina's leading scorer, Bruce Ellington, was held to nine points.
"We feel kind of upset. We should have won," Galloway said. "But we're not going to let it hang over our heads."
Even though Auburn led for the final 28 minutes of the game, South Carolina didn't give up easily. A few blocks by Johndre Jefferson, playing for the first time this year in an SEC game, got the offense going and the crowd excited. Brad Richardson's 3-pointer cut Auburn's lead to 55-50 with about 10 minutes to go.
And Auburn responded as South Carolina seemed to wilt. Four Tigers surrounded the basket on one possession, getting three offensive rebounds before Chubb's putback put Auburn ahead 65-52 with 4:18 left.
"We just didn't guard anybody," Horn said. "We cut it to five and had a chance and then we just let them come down three straight times and score."
3-Point -- Auburn 1-5 (Payne 0-1, Gabriel 0-1, Ross 1-2, Armstrong 0-1); USC 7-33 (Muldrow 1-3, Richardson 2-6, Galloway 2-8, Ellington 1-7, Spinella 0-3, Smith 1-5, Cooke 0-1. Steals -- Auburn 4 (Wallace 2); USC 4 (Muldrow, Richardson, Spinella, Slawson). Blks -- Auburn 2 (Gabriel, Forbes); USC 11 (Muldrow 5, Jefferson 5). Turnovers -- Auburn 9 (Payne 3); USC 8 (Richardson 3, Ellington 3). Tech -- USC 1 (Cooke). A -- 10,281.
The Tigers kept pushing until the end. Up 14 with seven seconds left, they nearly forced a five-second call on a South Carolina inbounds play, then Wallace stole the pass and held it above his head with a big smile as they finally won an SEC game.
Auburn's victory assures the SEC won't have a winless team for the first time since Georgia Tech went 0-14 in 1954. The league hasn't had a one-win team since Alabama went 1-17 in 1969.
The loss is a big blow for the young Gamecocks, a double-digit favorite on Saturday who showed signs of being better than a last-place pick in the SEC East.
After the game, Chubb had loosened up his black and white Gamecocks Under Armour size 16s.
"They're making me give them back," he said, sounding a little bit deflated.
But they can't make Auburn give back its first SEC win.
"It's a big weight off our shoulders. It's well overdue," Chubb said. "We've just been fighting and scrapping in practice and knowing it's going to pay off sooner or later. Today was our day."