ELON, N.C. - The greatest gift that Damien Leonard has, coach Darrin Horn has said several times, is that he always thinks the next shot is going in.
Problem is, it hasn't. And the next one - nor the next one, nor the next one - is going in, either.
Leonard was 2-of-17 in a 58-53 loss at Elon on Tuesday, including 1-of-11 from the 3-point line. That followed a 2-for-10 mark against Western Carolina, with 1-for-5 from 3; and 3-of-9 in an exhibition game, all from 3.
Leonard has started every game and has drawn raves for his headiness, never having to be told twice about anything despite being a freshman. He was also credited by some national media outlets for being one of the country's best shooters, and listed as a player to watch in the SEC.
It's only been two games (that count), but the shots aren't there. Leonard keeps firing away and has started to run inside when the 3-pointers aren't falling, but those shots also aren't going down.
"I don't think it's lack of confidence at all," Horn said. "I think it's probably a level of frustration just because he's not used to them not going in. He's not the only one who didn't shoot the ball well."
Horn was right about that - USC was a mere 20-of-64 against the Phoenix, with only three 3-pointers among 27 attempts finding the hole. That was what allowed Elon to build an 11-point lead at halftime, and what allowed it to hold on when USC cut it to a one-point lead twice in the second half.
Yet, although it's still far too early to rubber-stamp Leonard's abilities, it's concerning to see a player that was lauded as one of the best shooters in the Southeast have everything bounce off the rim. Leonard keeps shooting, but keeps missing.
"I think he's a great kid, a great player and he's going to bounce back," senior Malik Cooke said.
Horn also pointed out that Leonard still played hard despite not scoring. While his defense has never been consistent, Leonard contributed to a strong USC effort and came up with a crucial steal late in the ballgame - but the Gamecocks couldn't convert the shot on the other end.
"Give Damien Leonard credit," Horn said. "He's still doing a lot of the little things we're asking him to do defensively. The other stuff is going to come."
WAVERING: The year that Brian Richardson had last year was a classic case of lost confidence. Richardson started out well, slipped, regained his footing by changing his game, had a couple of bad outings and was never a factor again.
Coming into this year, with only a 10-man bench, Richardson was going to be needed. He had a nice game against WCU, with five points, a steal and an assist. He also had a nice game against Elon, picking off two straight turnovers, running downcourt and dunking for four quick points in less than a minute.
Richardson's second dunk make it 19-18 Elon with 5:51 to play in the first half. USC took its only lead of the game, 20-19, when Eric Smith drove the baseline and flipped a shot off the glass. The Phoenix quickly recovered when Kevin Blake converted two free throws, and Sebastian Koch made one of two.
Damontre Harris made one free throw, then Richardson got his hands on another turnover. Flying downcourt with one man shadowing him, Richardson could have driven the lane and drawn the foul, or gotten another dunk. Instead, he pulled up, launched a jumper and as so many others did all evening, missed.
Elon's Brett Ervin stroked a 3-pointer, Austin Hamilton hit three free throws after Smith put a hand in his chest moments after Hamilton had launched a desperation 3-pointer with the shot clock winding, Roger Dugas hit a jumper and Ervin drilled another 3 to close the half. USC was held to two Harris free throws.
BAD OMEN: Perhaps it was just meant to be, especially considering the other three games at Southern Conference opponents in the past three years. Still, all of those played no part in Tuesday's game except maybe some were thinking it when the Gamecocks' first two shots of the game were blocked.
LINE SWITCH: Horn again substituted five for five against Elon, sending in his entire bench for his starters at the first media break. Horn says there's no strategy or reason for it, it's just the way it's worked out thus far.
WELCOME: Horn agreed to a two-for-one series, with Elon opening USC's 2010-11 season in Columbia and agreeing to come to USC next season, as long as the Gamecocks would play at Elon on Tuesday. USC was the first major-conference team to agree to play at Alumni Gym in its 61-year history.
Phoenix coach Matt Matheny told USC's radio crew that there had been a buzz about the game since the summer.
BANGED UP: USC couldn't take advantage of a gift before the game ever began. Guard Jack Isenbarger, who averaged 10.6 points per game last year as an All-Southern Conference Freshman Team selection, was ruled out before tipoff with a shoulder injury. He sustained the injury in Elon's season-opening loss at Massachusetts.
Isenbarger averaged less than 11 points per game but he seemed to save his best for big games. He scored 21 against Duke, 23 against Maryland and 22 against USC last year.
I KNOW YOU: A familiar face checked out the game. Former USC assistant coach Scott Cherry (2008-09), now the head coach at High Point, attended.
Cherry was with his assistant coach Trey Brown, who served as a graduate assistant at USC last year.