GREENVILLE — That’s not an SEC Tournament locker room.
SEC Tournament locker rooms are for smiles and confetti and a pretty new trophy being passed around. South Carolina knew all about that after winning an unprecedented four consecutive tournaments.
So what was this? The Gamecocks sat, stunned and scattered, some with hands over their red eyes, all as shocked as the legion of fans that bought tournament tickets at Bon Secours Wellness Arena expecting to see their heroines bring home another ring.
Arkansas beat USC 95-89 Friday in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, the first time since Dawn Staley’s second season that the Gamecocks failed to win a game in the league tournament and an abrupt end to what’s become the norm. Even playing in Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee and this building, even playing an undefeated Mississippi State team in 2018, the Gamecocks won the SEC Tournament.
That’s just the way it … was.
“The message is to this team and to everybody that’s a little South Carolina-fatigued is that we’ll be back,” Staley said. “We’ll be back to Greenville, South Carolina, and hopefully we won’t end our tournament prematurely.”
USC (21-9) was done in by the same player that nearly did it in Fayetteville on Feb. 3. Chelsea Dungee poured in 31 points, unstoppable on the dribble-drive, and the 10th-seed Razorbacks, a 30 percent 3-point shooting team all season, drained 11 of their 22 tries.
The surprise was as prevalent as the sadness and disgust in a locker room that only had plans for joy on Sunday.
“It sucks. It really does suck,” said USC point guard Ty Harris. "But we got another game coming up in two weeks, so we just got to keep pushing.”
* Mikiah Herbert Harrigan scored a career-high 27 points and was the one player the Razorbacks had no answer for. Her lethal jumper from inside the 3-point line was dropping all over Arkansas’ interior defense.
* Harris had 24 points with three rebounds, six assists and two steals.
* USC knew how dangerous Dungee was after she scored 32 against them on Feb. 3, and the initial game plan seemed to be to contain her and let the others beat the Gamecocks. Arkansas cheerfully obliged, sticking 3-pointers to continue its late-season streak and take an early lead.
“We saw their last game, we saw they were very hot, obviously confident,” Herbert Harrigan said. “We were expecting them to shoot a lot of outside shots.”
* Dungee mostly ran one play. Isolate at the top of the key, almost always go left and either score at the rim or get the foul (and sometimes both). The Gamecocks never could get squared up to take the contact and potentially draw a charge, and played Dungee on their hips most of the night.
“She was direct line-driving. It was hard to bring help, so you kind of just picked your poison for her to two us or them to three us,” Staley said. “We took what we thought was the lesser of the evils in the two.”
Bianca Cuevas-Moore, one of the team’s best defenders, had another view.
“I mean, the refs was calling everything for her,” Cuevas-Moore said. “Every time she went to the basket it was a foul.”
* With their ninth loss of the year, USC may be on shaky ground when it comes to hosting a “home” NCAA Tournament regional in Charlotte. While the NCAA’s main focus will be attendance for the regionals — and nobody fills an arena like USC fans, which the SEC is about to find out how much not having USC will hurt — it does bring a cloud over the next two weeks.
“I can only control the controllables,” Staley said. “That is out of my pay grade, out of my league. Only thing we can do is show up, shut up and play the games. And that’s the way we’ll approach it.”
Freshman Victaria Saxton was not at the game after a death in the family. Saxton scored 19 points in the Gamecocks’ win in Fayetteville on Feb. 3.
The Gamecocks will find out their NCAA Tournament opponent on March 18.