ATHENS, Ga. — It was the kind of night where a South Carolina player was slow to get back on defense after losing a shoe. It was the kind of night where a Georgia player tumbled over the USC bench diving for a loose ball, fought through a line of spectators to get back on the court, and after catching up to his teammates’ immediately drained a 3.
It was that kind of night for the 25th-ranked Gamecocks, who may not be ranked for much longer.
In its last game before three straight against opponents at or near the top of the SEC standings, South Carolina shot itself into a first-half deficit that turned into a 69-56 loss Tuesday night at Stegeman Coliseum. The Gamecocks trailed by as many as 13 after shooting 6 of 28 in the first half, but with 6:30 to go whittled it down to two — only to watch Georgia pull away again.
“Disappointed. I thought defensively, we tried,” said Gamecocks head coach Frank Martin, whose team shot 31.6 percent for the game. “But you can’t go on the road and shoot 31 percent in league play and expect to win.”
Sindarius Thornwell scored 18 to lead the Gamecocks (19-3, 6-3 SEC), who were outrebounded for just the third time this season and gave up 16 points on second shots. USC travels Saturday to No. 8 Texas A&M, the SEC’s first-place team, before returning to Columbia for home games against LSU and No. 20 Kentucky. USC entered the night tied with the Tigers and Wildcats, one game behind the Aggies.
Leaving Georgia, that now looms as an ominous stretch. “We weren’t engaged,” Thornwell said. “... They played a good game. But a lot of stuff that happened tonight was because of us, because our energy and our effort wasn’t there. We didn’t box out, we didn’t rebound, we didn’t do what we were supposed to do. We didn’t do what we usually do.”
Yante Maten scored 18 to lead Georgia (12-8, 5-4), which placed four players in double-figures. “We beat a team that I vote every week in the Top 25, and a team that I’ll vote in the Top 25 next week, because I think they’re terrific,” said Bulldogs head coach Mark Fox. “It’s a really good win for our players and our team.”
It was a rough start for the Gamecocks, who managed just three field goals in the first 10 minutes against a Georgia zone that prompted USC to hoist a number of 3-point attempts. South Carolina went to the locker room shooting 21.4 percent, trailing by 10, and trying to find its offensive rhythm.
“The first half on offense, I don’t know how to explain it. We just didn’t attack,” Martin said. “... We were very passive in our mindset attacking that zone, and we paid the price.”
Added Thornwell: “They got us doing what they wanted us to do, settle for outside shots. ... They were open shots, but it’s not a good shot when the ball never touches the paint or never gets below the free throw line. And we settled for those shots.”
At times, it was almost comical. USC’s Michael Carrera lost a shoe in the final minute of the first half, and his absence on the defensive end led to an easy Maten layup. Early in the second, Georgia’s J.J. Frazier fell over the USC bench saving a loose ball, and had to battle past a line of spectators to get back on the court. He raced down to join his team on the offensive end — and sank a 3 that pushed the lead to 13.
“I didn’t want to give my team a disadvantage for too long,” Frazier said, “and the 3 at the end was a nice ending.”
Not for the Gamecocks. “No energy today. No energy today,” said Carrera, who finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds, but fouled out on a technical with 31 seconds left.
USC fought back, twice getting within three, and had a chance to cut into the lead even more — but Jamall Gregory stumbled on a two-on-one break and threw the ball away. A Duane Notice 3 with 6:30 left pulled South Carolina within two — but there were too many turnovers, and too many Georgia second shots to overcome.
“They couldn’t put their foot on our neck. The whole time, I thought we had a chance,” Thornwell said. “... We had chances, and we didn’t take advantage of them.”
And now, the Gamecocks need to rebound entering a three-game stretch which could hold their NCAA Tournament hopes in the balance.
“I was disappointed in some of our guys,” Martin said. “Not everybody. But we had some guys who were listless today, weren’t engaged in what we did. We were pretty good in practice, our attitudes were good. Caught me off guard.”