COLUMBIA - The program's longest winning streak in over a decade. A handful of Top 25 votes. Some mention as an NCAA tournament possibility, and an unbeaten run which lasted over a month.
Like it all never happened.
All the optimism from South Carolina's unexpectedly strong performance in non-conference play gave way Wednesday night to a familiar, uncomfortable feeling - another loss to open the SEC schedule, another loss to Florida, another indication that the road ahead may be much more difficult than the one behind.
Dorian Finney-Smith scored 20 points, and Florida beat South Carolina 72-68 before 12,181 at Colonial Life Arena to hand the Gamecocks their fourth straight loss in an SEC opener. A tight, defensive game resulted in the Gators' sixth straight victory over USC, and the end of a seven-game South Carolina winning streak which had been the program's longest since the 2003-04 campaign.
"This is a new season now," said guard Tyrone Johnson, who led the Gamecocks with 20 points. "What we did in non-conference is over. We had some good wins, hey, but that's over with."
Wednesday looked like a different team from the one which hadn't lost since the Charleston Classic in late November, recording victories over Oklahoma State, Clemson, and then-No. 9 Iowa State in the process. The Gamecocks (9-4, 0-1 SEC) were handled 37-23 on the glass, went long stretches in the second half without a field goal, and showed glaring deficiencies on both ends for the first time since dropping two of three games in the Lowcountry.
"The last two days of practice, we reverted right back to the stuff we had going on in Charleston," Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said. "We had created good habits to fight and give ourselves a chance. But our discipline, our disposition, our minds were never in a good place the last two days."
It showed against reigning league champ Florida (8-6, 1-0), which entered on a two-game losing streak, played without starting center Jon Horford - left home for conduct reasons, according to coach Billy Donovan - and didn't start guard Michael Frazier, who torched the Gamecocks for 37 last year in Columbia. Frazier came off the bench to score 17, and Florida's zone defense held USC to just 8-for-25 shooting in the second half.
"When you go in to fight the champ, he's going to hit you as hard as he can. And if you don't fight back, he's going to pummel you," Martin said. "We didn't have the habits after the last couple of days to be able to sustain the punch Florida threw at us."
South Carolina led by as many as six in the second half, but went stretches of four and seven minutes without a field goal. The Gamecocks had just five baskets in the second half until a Mindaugas Kaicinas 3-pointer with 34 seconds remaining ignited a late rally which was snuffed out by Florida free throws.
Even so, the game was tied with 11:27 left when USC's Laimonas Chatkevicius became entangled with Florida's Jacob Kurtz as the Gamecocks headed upcourt. The Lithuanian threw back an arm trying to shake off the defender, and officials ruled the motion as a flagrant elbow. Kurtz hit two free throws, Finney-Smith canned a 3 on the ensuing possession, and the Gators never trailed again.
"We were kind of on a run," Kacinas said. "Everyone was locked in with the defense, everyone was like 'Rah-rah-rah, let's go, let's go.' And then the flagrant foul - you can say stupid call, but it is what it is, and it kind of bumped us down. We kind of got frustrated, and they took advantage of it and they kept on rolling."
Florida used the foul to ignite a 11-0 run and pull away. "I have no idea what he's thinking about on that play. Turned the whole game around," Martin said of Chatkevicius. "... He said he threw an elbow and hit (Kurtz) in the face. If that's what he did, it's the right call. Why is he tangled up 40 feet behind the ball with another player? Beyond my imagination."
And now, suddenly, this feels like other USC seasons which looked promising in November and December, and unraveled once SEC play began. The Gamecocks lost their first six league games last year, and never recovered. Now they head to Mississippi, which on Tuesday took No. 1 Kentucky to overtime, trying to rediscover the form which kindled hopes of a winning record and postseason play.
"They were good for six weeks," Martin said, "so I'm going to expect them to be good tomorrow."