South Carolina continued its slide into the depths of no hope on Saturday with a 73-64 loss to Tennessee, again unable to mount any kind of consistent offense and unable to take advantage of what the officials gave it. After a striking 28-4 disparity in free-throw attempts in a loss at Vanderbilt, a statistic that had coach Darrin Horn vocally stewing afterward, the fouls caught up.
But the Gamecocks still couldn't turn them into their favor.
"You get to the rim, you've got to make them," said Horn, who pointed out that the Gamecocks took 22 more shots than the Volunteers. "We've just got to finish. Got to make layups."
Tennessee's Jeronne Maymon scored 10 points in the first half but sat down with three fouls in the first two minutes of the second half. Yet, deprived of their best post threat and the Gamecocks getting a whistle every time they were touched, the Volunteers leaped ahead.
USC missed chip shot after chip shot to force itself into a familiar position of having to shoot 3-pointers to get out of a hole. The Gamecocks (10-18, 2-12 SEC) couldn't hit enough of anything as the Vols (16-13, 8-6) kept charging toward a top-four finish in the league.
Trae Golden poured in a game-high 21 points, eight straight in one stretch, as the Vols weathered a brief USC second-half charge and turned it into a double-digit lead. The Gamecocks, as per their usual, made a comeback, but as soon as they got within a shot or two of the lead, more of their freezing shooting popped up.
USC hit the bonus with 9:21 to go, but couldn't make it count. A solid free-throw shooting team, the Gamecocks converted 14 of their 19 tries, but the good they did from there was undone by the mistakes they made on defense.
Bruce Ellington sunk both ends of a 1-and-1, Carlton Geathers shoved Jarnell Stokes underneath after Stokes had already laid the ball in the basket. Anthony Gill scored after Ellington missed what seemed the Gamecocks' 30th layup of the game, but missed the free throw, and Stokes charged right down the paint to score uncontested.
USC's best post defender, Damontre Harris, had two fouls in the game's first two minutes and four with seven minutes gone in the second. The raw Geathers was forced to play a career-high 21 minutes, against a team that knew it could drive and score on him, and was a non-factor on offense, which made the result predictable.
The Gamecocks kept trying to throw something in the hole and kept missing as Stokes took over the scoring. Then Skylar McBee, who will only shoot 3-pointers, was somehow left open in the corner.
Swish, 62-46, game over.
"We would chip away and get close, then they would hit a timely shot," Horn said. "We needed a collective performance and we didn't get it tonight."
Without their best post presence, the Volunteers still shot 52.2 percent from the field, 55.6 in the second half. USC, with a meager 30.6 in the second half, finished the game at 32.4 percent.
USC put three in double figures (Malik Cooke with 17 - and 10 rebounds -- , Ellington with 19 and Brenton Williams with 11) while Gill had nine. The problem was, nobody could shoot consistently, and anything the Gamecocks got was undone by the Volunteers working the paint like a full-time job.
"Just got to go out there and finish layups," Cooke said. "Try to stay as positive as possible."
Harris fouled out with no points and one rebound, plus a turnover and a goaltend. Ellington made six field goals and missed 14. Damien Leonard was again a no-show, with two points.
And there is no end in sight. USC has a couple of extremely sour "milestones" in its windshield - the program's first 20-loss season since 1998-99, and fourth overall; and the worst SEC record in program history (the Gamecocks have finished 3-13 twice).
Plus, for the first time all season, USC had a couple of stretches where it seemed to be indifferent to what was going on. The Gamecocks, even through the losing, at least displayed passion and confidence; there were two stretches at the beginning of each half on Saturday where even that wasn't there.
The Gamecocks have one more home game, where they will bid farewell to Cooke, the team's lone senior. Cooke spoke of how much he would love to win on Wednesday when Mississippi State visits, but the Gamecocks have to find an answer to their scoring woes and their defensive ineptitude to do that.
"This is Cooke's senior year," Ellington said. "So we've got to go out and fight for him, really."