EAST LANSING, Mich. -- There are no moral victories.
"I'm not pleased at all that we didn't win," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said, following the Gamecocks' 82-73 loss at No. 2 Michigan State on Tuesday. "We came here to do that."
Harsh? Maybe. The Gamecocks were within six points with two minutes to play to a team that is coming off two straight Final Four appearances and is a favorite to get a third in March.
But Horn didn't ask ESPN for this game, the anchor timeslot of the network's College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon, to be competitive. He wanted to win.
And while there are several positives to take from such a close loss in perhaps the most intimidating atmosphere the Gamecocks (1-1) will face all year, they did not win.
"We played hard, we competed," said sophomore guard Stephen Spinella, who scored a career-high 10 points and was vital in a second-half surge. "Still a loss, though."
Trailing 17 at halftime after a strange call knocked USC from its rhythm, the Gamecocks regrouped for the second half. They came out pressing Michigan State (2-0) into turnovers, ending with 14 for the half and 19 for the game, and began hitting their shots.
Bruce Ellington sank two free throws, then stole the ball and flipped to Spinella on the wing for a wide-open 3-pointer to make it 68-60 with 4:16 to play. The lead shrunk to 71-65 after Ellington canned a 3 from the opposite wing.
With 2:06 to play, Horn ordered his team to foul, a wise move considering Michigan State was wretched from the line all night (17-of-34). But Durrell Summers made both shots to cap a 22-point game, then Ellington came upcourt and flashed to the left wing.
The freshman, who led the Gamecocks with 22 points, threw back to the top of the key, but nobody was there. The Spartans recovered, dished to Austin Thornton in the corner and he cinched the game with a 3-pointer.
USC drew a lot of respect from its opponent, but wasn't feeling like being congratulated. Although it realizes that every pundit in the country has called for a building year for a team stocked with youth, the Gamecocks don't want to wait.
"We know that we have to play 40 minutes," Ellington lamented. "We turned it up in the second half. We've got to play like that for the whole game."
The Gamecocks matched the Spartans almost point-for-point in the first half, even taking a lead when Ramon Galloway swished a 3 with just over 10 minutes gone. Michigan State answered with a 3 from Keith Appling, then got a pretty alley-oop jam from Draymond Green to Summers. USC came down and got the ball to Ellington, who lost the ball with time almost gone on the shot clock.
The shot clock reset, although there was no shot, and when Ellington retrieved the loose ball, he had a fresh 35 showing. He lined up and knocked down a 3-pointer, making it 26-24 Spartans, but as coach Tom Izzo exploded on the sideline, the referees called timeout.
The rule is if the play had kept going, with a Michigan State possession after Ellington's 3, it would be a non-correctible mistake and the points would stand. But because there was a break, the refs went to the video, ascertained that the shot clock should never have reset, and awarded USC possession with three seconds on the clock.
Galloway missed a 3, Green hit a 3, and it was 29-21. The Spartans used that momentum to complete a 14-0 run for the massive halftime lead, and knocked Ellington, who had scored nine points to lead the team, out of kilter.
He later recovered, but the lapse got the Gamecocks in a hole. The rest of the first half was a case of panicky basketball.
"We did not handle that very well," Horn said.
USC pressured MSU to get back in the game in the second half, but never got beyond that six-point window. As Horn said, there were several positives -- three scorers in double-figures after Brian Richardson scored 11 points; a near double-double from Malik Cooke with 11 boards and nine points; out-rebounding a superior team size-wise 44-41.
But 20 turnovers, an inability to overcome early foul trouble on top post threat Sam Muldrow and playing good-but-not-good-enough defense (MSU had 23 assists on 29 field goals) led to the loss. The Gamecocks were there, and proved to ESPN that they weren't a roll-over team to one of the country's heavyweights, but at the end of the night, it didn't put a W on the ledger.
"I think that's what happened to us in the first half," Horn said. "We were right there, two-possession game, at about the 11-minute mark, then the run happened, the crowd got into it. We've got a young team, and we didn't handle it well.
"It's a learning experience for our team, and one we'll take and get better from."