COLUMBIA - South Carolina coach Frank Martin doesn't mind crediting a little divine intervention for a 67-66 win Saturday over Alabama that gave his Gamecocks back-to-back Southeastern Conference wins for the first time in three seasons.
Mindaugas Kacinas tipped in a miss with 16.6 seconds left to put South Carolina (10-15, 3-9) ahead two, and then Trevor Releford's go-ahead 3-point attempt lodged between the rim and backboard with 5.8 seconds to go. That's a jump ball and the possession arrow was in the Gamecocks' favor.
Martin stole a line from South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier after the game. "I guess the good Lord was looking down on the Gamecocks tonight," Martin said.
Releford scored 25 of his 27 points in the second half, pulling the Crimson Tide (10-15, 4-8) back from a 12-point second-half deficit, but what happened to his most important shot was another blow of bad karma in a season of struggles.
"We got the look we wanted. Of all the things that could happen, the ball got stuck like that and we don't get a chance at least for an offensive rebound," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said.
Kacinas' tip-in only mattered because Sindarius Thornwell kept South Carolina from collapsing. Alabama went on a 35-19 run over 13 minutes in the second half. The run started with free throws - at one point Alabama hit 10 in a row on five possessions - and ended with a 3-pointer by Releford, a 3 by Shannon Hale and another 3 by Releford that put the Crimson Tide up 60-56 with 3:57 left.
But Michael Carrera stopped the run with a layup on a lob. Then Thornwell took over with a short jumper, a free throw and a floater on a drive that put South Carolina ahead 63-62 with a minute left. The freshman finished with 22 points and has scored 20 or more points in five SEC games.
Thornwell also was assigned to guard Releford in the final minutes and kept the ball out of the hands of Alabama's top scorer in two key late possessions.
"We blew the lead, but we didn't give up. We continued to play defense," Thornwell said.
Alabama's Rodney Cooper made one of two free throws with 46 seconds left to tie it at 63. The Gamecocks then got the ball into Carrera who missed a heavily contested short jumper, but Kacinas slipped in for the tip-in. It was South Carolina's 32nd point in the paint. The Tide had just 16 points inside.
Thornwell hit two free throws with 5.2 seconds left making Releford's 3-pointer at the buzzer irrelevant.
Martin isn't shy about leaning on his freshman. Thornwell has played at least 35 minutes in South Carolina's last five games
"The fun thing about Sindarius is no matter where you put him, he knows what do," Martin said.
Martin said he was especially proud of the back-to-back wins because South Carolina had to play two games in 48 hours after snow and ice in Columbia delayed the Gamecocks' game with Vanderbilt for a day. The coach spaced out his timeouts in the second half to give him team time to rest.
"All we did was just challenge them, challenge them, challenge them - to get those young kids to understand you can't give in to fatigue," Martin said.
Senior Brenton Williams carried South Carolina during the first half of the season, but he scored just 10 points - none of them in the final 17 minutes. Carrera had eight points and seven rebounds and Kacinas had six points.
Shannon Hale and Cooper each added 11 points for Alabama.
"We fought. We gave ourselves a chance. It just didn't come out in our favor," Grant said.
With the win, South Carolina now shares last place in the SEC with Mississippi State. Alabama is just one game ahead of the basement, tied with Auburn.