STARKVILLE, Miss. - South Carolina concluded the regular season much like it has concluded games over the past month - poor shooting and too many crucial defensive breakdowns led to a loss.
The Gamecocks finished a 14-15 (5-11 SEC) regular season with a 60-58 loss at Mississippi State on Saturday, completing a 2-8 skid after winning only two games in February. USC also fell into a ticklish situation about its postseason fate.
Coach Darrin Horn has already said that the Gamecocks will not accept invitations to any postseason tournament but the NCAA or NIT. USC won't be in the NCAAs without a miraculous run through next week's SEC tournament, and it must win at least two games in the SEC tournament to be eligible for the NIT.
There is no rule stating the NIT cannot take a team that finishes below .500, but the tournament has never taken one. So if the Gamecocks don't win the SEC tournament championship, they will have one loss in the tournament; winning one game and then losing will leave it with a 15-16 record, so USC must equal the 16th loss with a 16th win.
North Carolina made the NIT as a 16-16 team last year and stormed to the finals, where it lost to Dayton. But even if USC matches that record, it's no guarantee the NIT will take a .500 team; but the Gamecocks would be considered.
USC will play the winner of Saturday's Arkansas-Ole Miss game at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday in the SEC tournament's first round. The Gamecocks beat each team in the regular season.
The winner of that game advances to face the SEC East's second seed at 3:30 p.m. on Friday. As of the conclusion of USC's game on Saturday, that team would be Kentucky, which the Gamecocks dropped two games to in the regular season, but it could be Vanderbilt.
Whoever the opponent, the Gamecocks have a steep hill to climb if they hope to clean up the messy end to their season. USC has not won an SEC tournament game under Horn and its combined record under Horn in February and March is 9-22 in three seasons, with five of those wins coming in Horn's first year.
The Gamecocks also regressed in the league for the third straight year, going from 10-6 and sharing the SEC East title; to 6-10; to 5-11. USC was expected to struggle this year, being picked last in the East, but won three of its first four SEC games, including one on the road at regular-season champion Florida.
But injuries, the opponents figuring out USC's youth and the biggest problem - inconsistent shooting - had the Gamecocks finishing 2-10 after the hot start. It showed up again on Saturday.
The Gamecocks dug themselves an early hole thanks to the tremendous 3-point shooting of Ravern Johnson and Kodi Augustus, each seniors playing their last game at Humphrey Coliseum. USC clawed back into the game but again fell behind by 11 points when the Bulldogs switched to a zone defense, denying USC its bread-and-butter scoring opportunities - offensive rebounds.
But a suddenly heated-up Bruce Ellington scored five straight points in a 9-0 USC run to get the game within four points, and as MSU began missing 3s, the score got to one point. Augustus hit a jumper from the elbow with a hand in his face to make it three points, when the Gamecocks' first opportunity to win revealed itself.
MSU coach Rick Stansbury screamed for a timeout but the official, recovering his footing after getting tangled up with folks on the baseline, never heard. The play went off as Stansbury ran across the court, almost to the baseline, hollering for a timeout. The official ran past Stansbury with the play, and had no choice but to call a technical foul.
Malik Cooke made two free throws to make it a one-point game, and USC had the ball with 23 seconds to go. Ellington decided to see if his hot hand was still there and launched a quick 3-pointer - it airballed and MSU got the rebound.
On the radio post-game, Horn said that USC wanted a ball screen with either Ellington or Sam Muldrow up top, to set up a drive or a stop-and-pop jumper. Horn said Ellington refused the screen.
The Gamecocks immediately fouled, and Augustus hit one free throw. Trailing two points with 10 seconds to play, USC ran its inside-out isolation, Ellington throwing to Ramon Galloway and then flashing to the corner. Galloway passed back to Ellington, but MSU's Riley Benock was there too, leaping as Ellington rose.
Ellington had to elevate his shot and it was short and to the left for another airball.
Ellington led the Gamecocks with 15 points while Cooke had 13. Muldrow had 10.
SEC STANDINGS SEC East Team SEC record Overall record @*Florida 12-3 23-6 Kentucky 9-6 21-8 Vanderbilt 9-6 21-8 Georgia 9-7 20-10 Tennessee 8-7 18-12 South Carolina 5-11 14-15 SEC West *Alabama 12-4 20-10 Mississippi State 9-7 17-13 Arkansas 7-8 18-11 Ole Miss 6-9 18-12 Auburn 3-12 10-19 LSU 3-12 11-19 *Division champion @Regular-season champion Saturday's games Alabama 65, Georgia 57 Mississippi State 60, South Carolina 58 Arkansas at Ole Miss, 4 p.m. Florida at Vanderbilt, 6 p.m. Auburn at LSU, 7 p.m. Sunday's game Kentucky at Tennessee, noon
SEC TOURNAMENT WATCH We'll be updating this after every conference game from here on out.
Florida clinched the outright SEC regular-season championship with a win over Vanderbilt.
2011 SEC TOURNAMENT Georgia Dome, Atlanta March 10 Game 1 -- Fifth West vs. Fourth East, 1 p.m. Game 2 -- Sixth East vs. Third West, 3:30 p.m. Game 3 -- Fifth East vs. Fourth West, 7:30 p.m. Game 4 -- Sixth West vs. Third East, 10 p.m. March 11 Game 5 -- Game 1 winner vs. West First, 1 p.m. Game 6 -- Game 2 winner vs. Second East, 3:30 p.m. Game 7 -- Game 3 winner vs. First East, 7:30 p.m. Game 8 -- Game 4 winner vs. Second West, 10 p.m. March 12 Game 9 -- Semifinal, 1 p.m. Game 10 -- Semifinal, 3:30 p.m. March 13 Championship -- 1 p.m.
IF THE SEASON ENDED TODAY March 10 Game 1 -- LSU vs. Georgia, 1 p.m. Game 2 -- South Carolina vs. Arkansas, 3:30 p.m. Game 3 -- Tennessee vs. Ole Miss, 7:30 p.m. Game 4 -- Auburn vs. Vanderbilt, 10 p.m. March 11 Game 5 -- Game 1 winner vs. Alabama, 1 p.m. Game 6 -- Game 2 winner vs. Kentucky, 3:30 p.m. Game 7 -- Game 3 winner vs. Florida, 7:30 p.m. Game 8 -- Game 4 winner vs. Mississippi State, 10 p.m. March 12 Game 9 -- Semifinal, 1 p.m. Game 10 -- Semifinal, 3:30 p.m. March 13 Championship -- 1 p.m. *Bold means the seed is locked in