COLUMBIA -- The free throw shot spun off RJ Slawson's fingertips and toward the rim. South Carolina needed it to fall in order to tie Sunday night's game against Tennessee State at 64 with 7.5 seconds remaining. Slawson, a Fort Dorchester graduate, watched the ball, as did his teammates. Malik Cooke, USC's senior leader, said later that he thought "it looked like it was a pretty good shot."
It rattled out, typifying a night on which the Gamecocks did too little, too late. Despite a furious second half comeback, they lost 64-63 and fell to 1-2, having lost their previous game to another smaller-conference opponent, Elon. They host Mississippi Valley State on Tuesday, and if they lose, this season of vast importance for coach Darrin Horn could go off the rails very quickly.
His team was an abject disaster in the first half, and few, if any, fans in the sparse crowd at Colonial Life Arena even bothered to boo. Who could blame them for such apathy after what they saw? USC trailed 33-19 at halftime, shot 5 of 22 and had three assists and 12 turnovers -- four by Cooke and five combined by point guards Lakeem Jackson and Eric Smith. Power forward Anthony Gill sat for the final 18 minutes of the half after getting two quick fouls.
"We've got to learn -- and apparently didn't learn from our first loss earlier in the week -- that we've got to be a team that does the little things to be our best," Horn said. "We've got to do things like take care of the basketball. It's going to be hard for us to be good when those kind of things happen."
Said Cooke: "We just came out flat in the first half, and that's on the players. We've got to prepare like we want to come in and win games. If we don't do that, we can lose to anybody."
USC never led, for the rest of the game, after the 12:01 mark of the first half. Its deficit grew as large as 49-28 with 13:30 left in the game. Then the Gamecocks stormed back with a 21-2 run -- including three 3-pointers by Smith, who had all 18 of his points after halftime -- to trail 51-49 with 7:20 remaining.
USC trailed 64-62 when Slawson grabbed a huge offensive rebound of Smith's missed 3 with 10 seconds left. But Slawson couldn't make the short put-back jump shot and came up a free throw short of perhaps sending the game to overtime against a team that lost to Saint Louis 71-37.
USC fans and administrators wanted Horn to show progress in his fourth season, and while the second-half comeback was admirable, it is difficult to take any moral victories from a loss to Tennessee State, even if USC essentially reversed its first-half numbers with four turnovers and 10 assists after halftime.
"When you dig yourself the hole that we did, it's too late," Horn said. "I think we showed in the second half what we're capable of, but we also are not good enough to play one half and be a good basketball team."