COLUMBIA — As he huddled with his South Carolina team one last time, planning its final offensive play, Frank Martin had to feel encouraged by what the Gamecocks showed him up to this critical moment of a back-and-forth game.
There were 9.4 seconds left in Saturday’s meeting with Auburn, which led USC by three points. The lead had changed hands 27 times and the score had been tied 13 times. While the Gamecocks showed little inclination toward playing defense, their offense had kept them in the game all afternoon. They made 26 of their first 56 shots. Martin drew up a plan for their 57th.
Here’s how the play was supposed to unfold: Point guard Bruce Ellington would inbound the ball from the baseline to wing player Mindaugas Kacinas. Kacinas would catch the ball along the baseline, about 12 feet from the basket, but not too close to the corner, because that’s where Ellington would slide to, immediately after inbounding the ball.
There were three other USC guards on the floor, and their presence on the opposite side of the court from Ellington’s corner would force Auburn to honor them as shooting threats. Ideally, Kacinas would have his pick of passing to one of four shooters — whoever was in the best position to nail the game-tying 3-pointer.
Here’s how the play unraveled: Kacinas ran to Ellington’s corner. That’s all it took. One simple mistake in positioning, and the play was blown. When Kacinas passed back to Ellington in the corner, a crowd was already there, including Kacinas’ defender. Ellington had to heave a desperate 3 through the tangle, an air ball as the buzzer sounded that stunned Colonial Life Arena into silence and had Martin yelling at Kacinas near the bench moments later.
Martin was trying to figure out how this happened again, how the Gamecocks lost 74-71 in another winnable Southeastern Conference game, three days after they fell 56-54 at Mississippi State, one of the league’s most vulnerable teams.
USC (10-5, 0-2 SEC) has a good chance of beating Georgia in Columbia on Feb. 2. Between now and then, the Gamecocks play five games, and could easily lose all five: LSU, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Arkansas and Florida, with Vanderbilt and Arkansas coming to Columbia.
Despite the rough road ahead, despite the botched final play, even despite shoddy defense that offends Martin’s coaching sensibilities, he spun positive afterward — and for good reasons.
His best player, Ellington, played like it Saturday. He shot 8 of 15, scored 18 points and had five assists and two turnovers. He was a disaster at Mississippi State: 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting with two assists and nine turnovers, including an important one late. Because of his football duties, Ellington missed USC’s three games before the SEC opener and hadn’t played a basketball game since Dec. 19.
“I hadn’t had time to get in the gym (before Mississippi State),” Ellington said. “But lately, I’ve been in the gym every day, after practice, before practice, just getting shots up.”
Without a reliable big man, USC is largely dependent on guard play. The Gamecocks have now played five games without former starting shooting guard LaShay Page, who is academically ineligible for the rest of the season. They had relied on the emergence of Brenton Williams and Brian Richardson. Williams entered Saturday as USC’s leading scorer, with 12.3 points per game. Richardson averaged 15 in the previous six games.
Neither scored Saturday. Richardson played 14 minutes, Williams six. Martin expects Ellington to produce, regardless. Shooting guard Damien Leonard was a non-factor for most of the season until Saturday, when the sophomore had his best game at USC: 17 points, nine rebounds, including six offensive. He accounted for the absence of Richardson and Williams by making 5 of 8 3-pointers in 33 minutes off the bench.
Entering Saturday, he averaged 3.8 points, 13 minutes, two rebounds and made 8 of 27 3s. Martin had simply decided not to play him in two games. Martin said he is gaining confidence in Leonard, but needs to see him play better perimeter defense. Martin also wants his undersized forwards, Kacinas and Lakeem Jackson, to more assertively establish position in the post. Auburn shot 58.5 percent Saturday, the highest allowed by USC all season, because of poor perimeter and post defense, Martin said.
But, he said, “I’m a lot more encouraged than I am discouraged. I think as we continue to fight to learn how to win these kinds of games, it’s going to be a whole lot of fun when we figure things out. Our guys are trying. (Major conference) basketball is unforgiving. You can try real hard and kind of feel like you’re not getting stuff done. But our guys are getting a lot of stuff done.”