COLUMBIA — The Gamecocks honored Bobby Cremins on Saturday as part of Carolina's Christmases past. But before the game was over, the College of Charleston coach almost ruined their Christmas present.

In pre-holiday nail-biter here at the Colonial Center, Cremins and his Cougars took the Gamecocks down to the wire before losing in the final moments, 85-82.

Despite a 10-point lead at the half and as much as 15 points down the stretch, the road-weary Cougars let their biggest fish of the year off the hook.

"I'm really proud of our team," Cremins said after the close finish. "But we just couldn't close the deal. In the end, they were scoring too easily."

The main villain was USC's Zam Fredrick who started pumping in 3-pointers like he was filling up a Christmas stocking, ending the night with a team-high 21 points.

The Cougars answered with balanced scoring from Dustin Scott, who had a career-high 20 points, along with 17 from Tony White Jr., 14 from Andrew Goudelock and 13 from Jermaine Johnson, who added 11 rebounds to the effort.

But what looked like a big upset early turned into a disappointment in the end.

"It would have been a great Christmas gift," Cremins sighed. "Too bad. Too bad."

An ironic twist

It was one of the poignant moments that could have ended with an ironic twist when Cremins, one of Frank McGuire's boys from USC's glory years in the ACC, was recognized at the half as part of South Carolina's 100th-year-of-basketball celebration.

But Cremins gave his alma mater quite a scare as his Cougars played perhaps their best overall basketball to this point of the young season.

Coming into this big arena with a road-warrior mentality, the College outshot, outrebounded and outcoached the Gamecocks for most of this game. Only in the final minutes did the

Cougars let it slip away.

"I had a great time seeing my old teammates," Cremins said of the reunion with former Gamecocks such as Skip Harlicka, Gary Gregor, Frank Standard and Jack Thompson. "We played well enough to win, but that's the second straight game we played well but didn't win."

Cremins was referring to an earlier road loss to Florida State when his Cougars had the lead in the final minute, only to lose by five.

"We're a young team and we're learning how to play together," he said. "Games like this either build character or get you down. We just can't let these losses get us down."

The gameplan

As tough as it was to come so close to knocking off ACC and SEC teams so close together, this Cougars team could still be a holiday surprise for College of Charleston fans by the time their team plays its first home game on Dec. 29th.

After 10 straight road games (Charleston Southern game was at North Charleston Coliseum), this club (4-6) has been like a Broadway play working out the kinks while touring the country. So far the Cougars have played as far away as Puerto Rico and New York City without a single regular season game before the home fans at Kresse Arena.

While this would be considered a suicidal schedule to some coaches, Cremins has enjoyed putting this team together out of town.

It almost paid off in this regionally televised contest, one that would have made headlines during this slow holiday news period. Still, Cremins may cash in these dividends later this season.

"I felt we could win this game," Cremins said as he prepared to release his team for Christmas break. "I wish we could have defended better. And we will. At least that's the gameplan."

Reach Ken Burger at 937-5598 kburger@postandcourier.com.

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