The Gamecocks' freshman point guard shook an early cold spell to score a team-high 22 points on Saturday, rallying USC from a 14-point second-half deficit to an 83-75 overtime upset of No. 22 Vanderbilt. Ellington aced five of his six 3-pointers during the crucial run, rising past some contentious mix-ups that had the two teams jawing at each other, and Sam Muldrow had the second triple-double in school history as USC began the SEC season 1-0.
"I got a little mad, but all we did was stay focused," Ellington said. "Just boxed out and rebounded, tried to win the game."
The Gamecocks (10-4, 1-0 SEC) have never lost an SEC opener under coach Darrin Horn but were looking ready to break that streak with 13 minutes to play. Everybody on the Commodores' bench was able to score, and everyone eventually did; USC was in an offensive hole early with Ellington unable to find his shot, the Gamecocks not challenging Vandy's monstrous interior and another key shooter, Brian Richardson, saddled with foul trouble.
But two plays from Lakeem Jackson woke the Gamecocks from their doldrums, a dunk completion of an alley-oop pass from Ramon Galloway and an almost unheard-of 3-pointer. Spotty anywhere but 3 feet from the basket, Jackson made just the fourth 3 of his career and USC began to run.
"Makes you think it's got a chance to go your way, didn't it?" Horn quipped.
The lead shrank from nine to three as Ellington heated, then was elevated back to five before Ellington got the ball and drove the lane. He was fouled and there was a lot of contact afterward, all 10 players on the floor in one scrum as the jawing and shoving wouldn't stop. Horn had to walk Muldrow back to the huddle; Ellington was clearly steamed when players and coaches had to keep asking for his attention as he glared at the Commodores' huddle.
But the light, to repeat the phrase, was turned on.
Ellington and Muldrow rampaged past the Commodores for the final 10 minutes, Muldrow picking up more and more of his school-record 10 blocks and Ellington dialing in shot after impossible shot. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said earlier this week that Ellington was as good as departed star Devan Downey; Ellington was surely doing a nifty impression.
Another Ellington 3 tied the game at 72, and it entered overtime after Muldrow missed a 3, Jeffery Taylor missed a deuce and Ellington intercepted the Commodores' inbound pass trying for a touch-shot buzzer-beater. The extra session began with Muldrow holding four fouls, but the big man didn't stop being aggressive on defense.
He was fouled going for an offensive board and made two free throws for a four-point advantage, after Ellington had given the Gamecocks their first lead with a driver off the glass. Muldrow then rejected another shot that turned into Malik Cooke's stick-back for a six-point lead.
Vanderbilt's John Jenkins, the game's high scorer with 27 points, swished a 3 for the Commodores' first bucket of overtime, but Muldrow answered with his own. A deadly 3-point shooter from the top of the key but barely average from anywhere else, Muldrow stepped slightly to the left and drained the last of his 16 points.
The Commodores missed and missed, finally having to resort to fouling, and although the Gamecocks bricked their final three free throws, it didn't matter. Vandy passed to Taylor underneath the basket for a feel-good two points; Muldrow wouldn't allow it as he reached from behind and blocked as the glass turned red.
Muldrow finished with 16 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks, half of the rejections coming when he had four fouls. It was only the second triple-double in school history (Chuck Eidson had the first, in 2002) and proved once again that when the Gamecocks have Muldrow at his best, they are tough to beat.
"It's a great feeling," Muldrow said, flashing his pearly whites in a rare show of off-the-court emotion. "I just kept staying aggressive."
"That ought to really send a good message to our big guys," Stallings said.
USC was sluggish early but magnificent late, Jackson (15) and Galloway (12) following Ellington and Muldrow in double figures. The Gamecocks were down but never gave up, which Horn and his team credited as just as big of a reason besides the X's and O's for the win.
"We played the way we want to play," Horn said. "We had a never-quit attitude throughout the game."
And a bit of fire when Ellington was challenged.
"I just wanted to go out there and play hard," Ellington said. "I was a little nervous at first. My teammates got me into the game."