GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Darrin Horn couldn't be more pleased with his team's effort. Since he "loosened the reins" a bit three games ago, South Carolina has played a more intense, more aggressive brand of basketball.
But it still isn't yielding many wins, and it's getting to the point where the Gamecocks can't lose many more games if they hope to finish the season .500 or above in the SEC.
"We continue to compete and battle in games, and I think we continue to see some guys get better," Horn said after the Gamecocks lost 74-66 to No. 12 Florida on Thursday. "We continue to see some positive things like that. We just need it more collectively and we need it for 40 minutes."
Horn and his team say their confidence is fine, the fourth-year coach saying before the Florida trip that his team strangely builds confidence despite the losing. But the Gamecocks, after seeing an immediate result when they beat Alabama two games ago, aren't seeing many more positive returns from their new style of play.
"Yeah, it's getting frustrating. I ain't going to lie to you," said Damontre Harris, who had one of the best games of his burgeoning career. "It's getting frustrating for the simple fact that we know that we're all pouring our heart and time into the game, but the results that we're looking for aren't coming out."
USC was close against Ole Miss, and a missed free throw cost it a tie game with less than a minute to go. USC was close against Florida, getting within six points with less than four minutes to play, but like against Ole Miss, one small mistake turned into a gap-widening advantage.
Trailing 56-50, Florida (18-4, 6-1 SEC) missed a 3-pointer and Brenton Williams rebounded. He only controlled the ball for an instant before it was tipped away and Florida recovered, passing the ball to Bradley Beal.
Beal drove the baseline, rose and savagely dunked one-handed over Harris, also drawing the foul. He made the free throw for a nine-point lead, and the Gamecocks were down to their last gasp.
They made it count, Bruce Ellington and Anthony Gill stroking back-to-back 3s to make it a five-point game. But then Erving Walker was tied up at midcourt, tripped and lost the ball, what USC called traveling and what was ruled a foul. A furious Horn danced down his sideline before finding an empty chair to ram himself onto, but the call stood, Walker made both free throws and the game was iced.
USC didn't surrender until the buzzer, Williams hitting a 3 to make it 67-62 with 50 seconds to go. But the Gamecocks had to foul to save clock, and Florida corrected a rough night at the stripe by converting when it counted.
Close game, hard-fought game, but still a lost game. The Gamecocks fell to 9-12, 1-6, and have to face an extremely quick turnaround before hosting No. 1 Kentucky at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
"More than anything, I think the mental approach to it is really important," Horn said. "Find a way to flush this one tonight, and move on."
The Gamecocks are leaning on their bright spots, which are increasing. Harris was an "all-SEC, no question" player according to Horn, with 12 points, nine rebounds, six blocks and three steals. He was one of four Gamecocks in double figures, led by 15 points from Ellington.
USC also held the Gators, the nation's leaders in made 3-pointers, to a season-low 25 percent from long range. Florida bricked 21 of its attempts while USC, offensively challenged all year, shot 44.6 percent from the field.
The difference was turnovers, 15 from USC, that provided Florida with 21 points. The Gamecocks knew they couldn't get in a run-and-gun matchup with the speedy Gators because the two teams played defense so similarly, but that was the only way USC could continue to force itself on the opponent.
The Gamecocks were also out-rebounded 42-30, every loose ball in the first half finding its way to a man in a white jersey, which opened a large lead. USC never got even and fell into a tie for the SEC cellar with Georgia.
"We gave up too many offensive rebounds," Horn said. "I think we showed some things, we get real close. The challenge is when playing a team of Florida's caliber and you've dug yourself in a hole."