ST. LOUIS — South Carolina won.
Winning comfortably was never part of the bargain.
The Gamecocks beat Ole Miss 85-84 in the first round of the SEC tournament Wednesday after trailing five points with 13 minutes to go. The Rebels (12-20), playing for nothing more than pride after coach Andy Kennedy resigned with four games remaining in the regular season, crushed USC on the glass and made its living on second-chance points, but its league-worst defense couldn’t stop the Gamecocks from behind the arc.
USC (17-15) stroked 12 3-pointers, nearly half of its 27 field goals, to smooth over another inconsistent offensive performance. The Rebels switched to more of a freelance up-tempo approach after Kennedy quit on Feb. 18, although they sacrificed their defense to do so, yet nearly won just their second game in the last 12 as USC went 8:15 over the two halves without a field goal.
Ole Miss led by five but USC’s 10-0 run pushed the Gamecocks ahead to stay. Frank Booker had six 3s to help 21 points, while Chris Silva overcame a rough start and a rotten night at the free-throw line to also score 21.
USC will play sixth-seed Arkansas at approximately 9:30 p.m. Thursday in the second round. The Gamecocks need as many wins as possible in the tournament to try and improve their NIT projection, but if they don’t go to the postseason, they have clinched their fourth straight winning season.
Frank Martin is the first USC coach since Frank McGuire to have four straight winning seasons, which would stand if the Gamecocks either beat the Razorbacks or don’t play in the NIT.
Ole Miss had 24 second-chance points off 18 offensive rebounds, USC forgetting basic fundamentals in the 32nd game of the season. Instead of boxing out, the Gamecocks turned and looked at the Rebels’ shots and seemed surprised when Ole Miss was constantly there for putbacks.
The Gamecocks were comfortably ahead on the strength of 13 first-half points from Maik Kotsar, but when Kotsar was hit in the face on a collision under the basket, his production was effectively nixed. He played sparingly in the second half and looked woozy on the bench.
The Gamecocks left 15 points at the free-throw line, normally dependable shooter Silva an icy 13-of-20. Silva scored his 1,000th career point in the win.
Booker hit the most important shot, the back end of two free throws with 13.9 seconds to play, for a four-point lead. The Gamecocks were able to force Ole Miss to extend the clock before Bruce Stevens hit a meaningless 3 at the buzzer.
USC broke a two-year one-and-done streak in the SEC tournament. Martin led the Gamecocks to four wins in the event over the two seasons before that.