VIDEO: Damontre Harris, Bruce Ellington, Malik Cooke
All South Carolina needed, coach Darrin Horn said on Tuesday, was to get to the last five minutes of the game with a chance to win. The Gamecocks, winless after their first four SEC games, had been taken out early in defeats to Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida and Auburn and never had a chance to make a comeback.
On Wednesday, as the clock hit 5:18 to play with the Gamecocks tied with Alabama, Horn saw his wish come true.
Then he saw the nightmare of the first four games turn into a beautiful dream.
Bruce Ellington's lane-driving layup bounced once and fell through the hole with 1.3 seconds to play and USC finally claimed its first SEC win, 56-54. The Gamecocks (9-10, 1-4) avoided their first 0-5 league start since 1998-99 and gained a victory that proved that they could win despite playing about the same way they have all season.
USC still shot miserably, with a 32.4 percentage and only five made 3-pointers in 31 attempts. The Gamecocks were out-rebounded by two, including 28-19 on the defensive-to-offensive boards.
Didn't matter. USC won the game.
"This group is a resilient bunch," Horn said. "We've obviously been through a lot. This team is playing their guts out. I know we haven't been very good, but I think we all felt a sense of urgency. Just find a way to get one."
They did that, turning to Ellington to do it. Horn designed two plays out of a timeout with 5.4 seconds left, both for Ellington.
The lane defense melted away as Ellington flashed past the up-guard and threw the ball up. The bounce took a few extra ticks off the clock, and when Alabama had to rely on a half-court heave to inbound the ball, Gill was in perfect position to push JaMychal Green far out of his comfort zone.
Green's 18-footer was well short of the mark, the horn sounded and USC celebrated. Briefly.
"We're going to forget about this," said Cooke, who scored the team's first eight points and ended with 18. "We've been working really hard and it paid off. Just got to go out and try to win the next game."
USC answered the call every time the Crimson Tide (13-7, 2-4) made a charge. The teams battled back and forth down the stretch, neither unable to take more than a two-point lead in the final 8:34.
Cooke scored six straight points, with Alabama answering, as the score was knotted at 50 with 5:18 to play. From there, Harris took a feed from Gill for a tomahawk dunk out of a timeout, only to see Levi Randolph answer with a soft floater in the lane.
Gill tipped in an Ellington miss for his only points and a 54-52 lead, but then Green got the ball on the block and saw that he was triple-teamed. He flipped a quick pass over two USC heads to a wide-open Randolph, who laid in the tying bucket with 58 seconds to play.
USC worked a play to Gill, who shot quickly in order to preserve the clock and get a potential last shot. He missed, part of a 1-for-8 showing, but as Alabama's Trevor Releford came upcourt, he found Cooke blocking this path.
Cooke came up with the steal and passed to Ellington as USC called timeout. The Tide, with two fouls to give, used one to stop Ellington with 6.4 seconds left, then with 5.4.
That was all he needed. Ellington took the inbound pass and drove, knowing he could get around the defense. "I thought, 'I'm fast enough to get by him,'" Ellington said. "The play was designed for me to get the ball, to penetrate, try and get a shot or kick it out.
"I got a shot."
It was the first game-winning shot of his career, Ellington said, since the time he started playing basketball.
"He made a play," said a surly Anthony Grant, who has seen his team, NIT runner-up a year ago, drop four straight. "He drove the lane, and when he got to the rim, he made a layup."
It bounced in, the meager crowd rejoiced and Alabama's last shot was short. The Gamecocks could finally smile after a game, knowing their play was still iffy, but their effort had paid off.
"We hope now we can start building on it," Horn said.
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