COLUMBIA – Last Wednesday, Colonial Life Arena buzzed as South Carolina finally finished off a close game, by beating Mississippi. In the Gamecocks’ next home game, Thursday night against Missouri, there was no such drama, no such excitement, but plenty of surprising defensive lapses that left USC coach Frank Martin shaking his head on the bench.
The Tigers won 90-68, leaving the Gamecocks (13-15, 3-12 Southeastern Conference) needing to win their final three games to avoid their fourth consecutive losing regular season. It is a tall order, because they have a short turnaround before Saturday night’s game at Texas A&M.
USC could certainly experience a happy ending to its home schedule, since the league’s worst team, Mississippi State, comes to Columbia next Wednesday for Senior Night. But there were few reasons for joy in Thursday’s final 24 minutes.
The game was tied at 34 with 4:12 left in the first half. Then the Tigers out-scored USC 42-17, to take a 25-point lead with 10:04 left in the game. At that point, Missouri had made 28 of 37 shots (75.7 percent), including 12 of 13 to start the second half.
The only drama that remained was seeing if the Tigers would become the third team ever to shoot 70-plus percent against USC. UCLA shot 72.9 in 2001-02, Davidson 71.1 in 1984-85. Missouri’s record for best field goal percentage: 75.4.
But the Tigers wound up shooting 69.6 percent Thursday (32 of 46, including 16 of 22 in the second half). Not that Missouri coach Frank Haith will weep over narrowly missing those school records. He will certainly settle for shooting better against USC than all but two opponents in the Gamecocks’ history.
“I don’t think we could have played any better offensively,” Haith said.
Said USC shooting guard Damien Leonard: “They were making everything, so there was nothing we could do. We stopped playing aggressive (in the second half).”
Defensive consistency has been an issue for USC throughout Martin’s debut, rebuilding season. USC entered Thursday 12th in the 14-team SEC in field goal percentage defense (43.8). But if Kentucky hanging 61.4 percent on USC added considerable salt to Martin’s salt-and-pepper hair, Thursday’s defensive foibles might just result in Martin arriving at Texas A&M with a ‘do as snow white as that of Bob Knight, who worked Thursday’s television broadcast.
USC defended well in its previous two games, allowing 31.3 percent against Georgia and 37.5 against Ole Miss. That made Thursday’s issues all the more stunning for Martin.
“Obviously, we had no answers today,” he said. “We couldn’t defend them. We didn’t provide much resistance. It didn’t get any better as the game went on. We never put up a fight. It’s a shame, because we had been playing pretty good and practicing pretty good. Practices have been enthusiastic and energetic. We’ve gone out and played pretty good.
“It caught me off guard. I didn’t expect us to perform how we did today. I did not expect it at all. Our whole goal is about getting better, and for the last 10 days, we had gotten better. And today, we didn’t get better. But we need to get better tomorrow. That’s the disappointing thing, is that we had been doing things pretty good and we didn’t do them well today.”
Both teams’ offenses hummed along in the first half, after which Missouri led 45-38. The Tigers made 16 of 24 shots, the Gamecocks 14 of 24. USC had no answer for fifth-year senior guard Keion Bell, a Pepperdine transfer who scored 18 points, shot 5 of 7 and made 7 of 8 free throws. A sprained ankle sidelined Bell for the teams’ first game, a 71-65 Missouri win on Jan. 22. Bell finished with a game-high 24 points Thursday.
The Tigers also didn’t have another starter that night, forward and leading scorer Laurence Bowers, who sat because of a knee injury. Though Bowers had just four points in Thursday’s first half and finished with six, the Tigers’ offense looked smoother with him and Bell starting.
In the first meeting, USC led 35-27 at halftime. The Gamecocks limited Missouri to 33.3 percent shooting in that first game, as the Tigers made just five of 27 3-pointers. They took just nine on Thursday, and made six, as they were able to get 46 points in the paint and 20 on free throws.
“Over there (at Missouri in the first game), we provided some resistance,” Martin said. “Since we didn’t give them easy layups and dunks and free throws, then they started relying on the 3 a little bit and they weren’t making them. Today, we gave them too many easy ones early.”
For the second straight home game Thursday, USC tried to play spoiler against a team angling for an NCAA tournament bid. Last Wednesday’s 63-62 win over Ole Miss was a blow to the Rebels’ tournament hopes. As of Tuesday, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projected them as being one of the last four teams to make the tournament.
Lunardi had Missouri more solidly in the field, as a No. 8 seed, but the Tigers could not afford too many missteps in their final four games, against USC, LSU, Arkansas and Tennessee. Missouri came to Columbia having struggled on the road. The Tigers were 15-0 at home and 3-1 in neutral court games. On the road, they were 1-7, including 1-6 against SEC teams.
But just as they took care of business with a 42-point win at Mississippi State, they brushed aside a USC team now just trying to avoid ending the season in complete misery.