COLUMBIA — In one of the most even seasons college basketball has ever had, nothing’s truly over until Selection Sunday. Too much has already happened this year and too much could still happen over the final two weeks of the regular season and then the conference tournaments to ever count a team out.
So South Carolina’s 86-80 loss to LSU on Saturday didn’t necessarily burst the bubble holding the Gamecocks’ slim NCAA Tournament hopes. It didn’t inflate the bubble, but it didn’t break it.
What it did was leave USC (16-11, 8-6 SEC) with no margin for error over the next three weeks. The Gamecocks have sparse choice but to win their final four games and probably one in the SEC Tournament to firm their footing for an NCAA chance.
They came into the week on a roll, knowing that they were playing their best. They left with losses to Mississippi State and LSU and fell further behind in their mission to clinch their fourth top-four SEC finish in the last five years.
“Disappointed that two games in a row, defensively, our attention to detail and discipline has been really, really bad,” USC coach Frank Martin said. “The things that we talk about doing defensively, we have not done for two games in a row.”
LSU (19-8, 10-4) got to the rim whenever it wanted and splashed enough 3-pointers to negate USC’s early success. Two first-half fouls on senior Maik Kotsar, who’s having an All-SEC season, crushed production and took away another interior defender.
“That kind of really hurt us, him leading us in scoring,” USC guard Jermaine Couisnard said. “We really couldn’t get the ball in the paint with him out.”
As they did at MSU on Wednesday, the Gamecocks kept fighting, but every time the deficit got within a basket, LSU would embark on another run. USC always had another poor shot attempt to create a Tigers runout; or defensive lapse on a wide-open 3-pointer; or their familiar bugaboo of missing free throws to help LSU along.
USC cut it to four after a thunderous Keyshawn Bryant dunk, but the Gamecocks couldn’t finish. Alanzo Frink shot an unwise baseline jumper that missed, Aundre Hyatt smoked a 3 and LSU was off on an 11-1 game-clinching run.
The Gamecocks, as they also did at MSU, forced the Tigers into panic mode with a flurry of late plays and shots but ran out of time. Martin has shown himself a master of coaching every second out of the last two minutes to get his team a win, but the hole the team has dug itself the last two games has been too deep.
“We play with no toughness at the rim. That’s why we don’t shoot free throws,” Martin said. “We got 20 offensive rebounds and got (zero) for it.”
Not their Days
USC got an early hint it wasn’t going to be a favorable evening. LSU power forward Darius Days (6-8, 240 pounds) has never been shy about shooting 3-pointers, attempting 111 this year before Saturday.
He was shy about making them, connecting on less than 28 percent.
He swished his first three attempts Saturday, all in the first eight minutes. Days answered every time LSU needed a run, scoring 16 first-half points with five rebounds and two steals, including five points in 18 seconds just as USC had cut the deficit to two.
One more win clinches a winning season for USC, no matter what happens in the SEC Tournament. If the Gamecocks only win one more regular-season game and go one-and-done in the SEC Tournament, a 17-15 record should be enough for an NIT berth.
Nobody would be overjoyed, but the NIT would be something after two straight years out of the postseason.
The Gamecocks host Georgia at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.