GREENVILLE -- Bruce Ellington walked out of the locker room with a garnet stocking cap perched on his head. Outside of the large South Carolina logo on it, it could have passed for a Santa Claus hat.
This was no happy holiday, though.
Ellington scored a career-high 31 points but the Gamecocks were blistered 91-75 at Furman on Wednesday, their second straight loss and a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings. The Gamecocks were one game away from entering the holiday break as the only team in the SEC without a shocking upset loss; the Paladins made sure they wouldn't get that nice little milestone.
Furman took the lead with just over 13 minutes to go in the first half and never trailed again, using a sizable rebounding advantage and masterful games from Amu Saaka and Justin Dehm to thwart its in-state neighbor. The Paladins beat the Gamecocks for the first time since 1980 and extended an unbelievable stretch of misery for USC coach Darrin Horn -- the third-year coach is now 0-4 on the road against in-state teams during his tenure, with three of those losses to Southern Conference opponents.
Every time USC (7-3) made a run, Furman (8-2) answered, be it a rebound or a loose ball or draining an uncontested shot. The Gamecocks got within three points after Ellington drained a 3-pointer with 10:53 to go, but a could-have-been play swung the momentum into the Paladins' favor.
Ellington saw Lakeem Jackson running toward the basket and lofted an alley-oop try toward the rim. Furman's defenders collided with Jackson as his fingertips grazed the ball; the Paladins recovered, streaked downcourt and found Jordan Miller for a wide-open 3-pointer.
"It looked like Lakeem might have got hit, actually, but it's one of those things that if it's there, you make it, and if it's not, we got the option to keep going through," Horn said. "We tried to make a play and we didn't."
Furman ran off five more points and USC never threatened again. Forced to press and foul while Ellington poured in point after point, the Gamecocks cut the deficit to seven with 1:45 to play and called timeout.
The Paladins inbounded and Darryl Evans had an uncontested lane for a layup. USC turned it over, Furman scored another layup. The Paladins picked off a pass under their own basket, put in their sixth point in 13 seconds, and the game was officially a wash.
"I thought the maturity of our team, at times, took over," Furman coach Jeff Jackson said.
USC was out-rebounded 44-26, which more than overcame the three less turnovers. Ellington scored 31 but only Ramon Galloway (11) and Brian Richardson (15) were also in double figures; Furman had five with at least 10 points, led by Saaka's 20.
The Paladins took the lead thanks to Dehm's 15 first-half points, all on 3-pointers and four uncontested. The Gamecocks simply could not find the senior, and he made all five of his attempts from beyond the arc, but even when he didn't play the majority of the second half, Furman still controlled the game.
Saaka took over, driving to the hoop and getting fouled in the process. He was a perfect 14-of-14 from the free-throw line to set a school record, and 15 points from Brandon Sebirumbi and Dehm with 17 from Miller helped him out.
USC's offense, built on passing the ball inside to center Sam Muldrow and letting him either drive or kick to the wing, was knocked off-kilter from the outset. Muldrow had six points, two rebounds and four fouls.
"When we have games where we don't defend and rebound, and don't get much out of our interior, especially someone as important as Sam Muldrow, it's going to be hard for us to beat good teams," Horn said. "And this is a good Furman team."
"I have to play well for our team to win," Muldrow said. "I didn't play good. We have to stick together and play as a team, because that's the only way that teams win."
Ellington's refusal to give up and ability to hit huge shots kept the Gamecocks close, but USC had to press and Furman kept finding the one outlet pass to beat it. "Of course they're going to break it sometimes and get an easy layup," Ellington said. "We've got to work on getting better inside."
And now work on sitting on an embarrassing loss while on a long stretch away from the court. The Gamecocks will return to campus on Sunday and play again on Dec. 29.
"I don't think it will be a problem," Ellington said. "I told the guys, just stay in the gym during this break. Stay in the gym and keep working."