Sam Muldrow's only win over Clemson was just as sweet as if he had three more.
Muldrow, South Carolina's senior center, whistled two free throws through the net for a four-point lead with 13.2 seconds to play on Sunday, which was enough for the Gamecocks to beat the Tigers, 64-60. Demontez Stitt's 3-pointer couldn't find the hole, Bruce Ellington rebounded and dribbled off the clock and USC celebrated a rivalry win for the first time in seven years.
Muldrow, in his fourth season, and coach Darrin Horn, in his third, were officially welcomed to the annual grudge match with yet another Gamecock win in what's becoming a year full of them. USC has beaten Clemson across the athletic board 11 times in 15 tries in the calendar year, and seven of eight times in the 2010-11 school season, the only loss coming in volleyball.
"It's not just another game on the schedule," Horn said. "It's never that. I really wanted it for our seniors.
"Six in a row, that's not a rivalry. That's a pounding."
The basketball team broke that six-year losing streak, which would have tied the second-longest streak in series history with another defeat, with one of its most intense and clutch-shooting games of the season. Bigs Muldrow, Johndre Jefferson and a marvelous game from junior swingman Malik Cooke backed another sterling performance from Ellington, the freshman point guard whose first cousin, Andre Ellington, runs the football for the Tigers.
Ellington led the Gamecocks with 14 points, the last four in a pulse-pounding stretch with a minute to go. Leading 58-55 with 55 seconds showing, shot clock winding down and trapped up top by Clemson's pressing defense, Ellington rolled off a screen, spotted from the left wing and knocked down a 3-pointer.
Then, with 31 seconds to go, Ellington made the second of two free throws. It helped wipe away the sting of a turnover he committed with a four-point lead, 1:55 to go, that led to a Clemson free throw.
"We didn't want Clemson to beat us," Ellington shrugged, "so we got together and made big plays."
Ellington's heroics gave the Gamecocks (6-1) just enough breathing room as the Tigers (5-3) threw the ball away and missed key shots. Even when Cooke, who muscled to the basket for 10 points and five boards, missed two free throws with 22 seconds to play, Clemson only got within two when leading scorer Andre Young (15 points) drained two free throws.
USC inbounded and threw a cross-court pass to Muldrow, who had an easy path to the basket but froze, wanting to work the clock. Devin Booker fouled and Muldrow calmly went to the line for his first shot, which he swished.
Clemson called timeout, but the icing didn't stick -- Muldrow came out of the break and hit his second as well. Stitt's last try rebounded long, Ellington corralled it and the Colonial Life Arena crowd erupted.
"I just went to the line and knocked them down," Muldrow said.
"I know how important this is, for the Gamecock nation," Horn said. "I'm especially happy for Sam Muldrow and Johndre Jefferson, Sam in particular. I don't think anybody wanted it more than Sam."
Muldrow was as aggressive and dominant as he has been all season, taking control early and staying a presence throughout. He finished with 13 points, five rebounds and five blocks, swatting Stitt twice in one possession and helping negate Clemson's height trio of Booker, Jerai Grant and Milton Jennings.
"I had two good practices leading up to the game, and the way you practice is the way you play," Muldrow said. "It was very important. It's my first time beating them."
Jefferson helped out with four points, two on a thunderous putback dunk, three boards and a block while sharpshooter Brian Richardson scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half. Lakeem Jackson contributed his usual line across the sheet -- six points, six rebounds, four assists, three steals -- and while USC missed a variety of chip shots (including a dunk from Ramon Galloway, where he not only missed but was given a technical foul for hanging on the rim), it made just enough.
A freshman started the game-clinching rally and a senior finished it. Muldrow finally tasted a victory over Clemson.
"Sam's presence was huge," Horn said. "From start to finish, he played like a senior should."