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March 6, 2009What was most concerning about Thursday's 86-70 loss to Tennessee wasn't that South Carolina lost a perfect chance to be in control of the SEC East championship race. The Gamecocks can still get a piece of that, although they'll need some help.
The problem was, for the first time all year, USC put together back-to-back lousy games.
"Any loss is a disappointing loss," guard Zam Fredrick said after his Senior Night ended with him scoring the same amount of points as the margin of defeat. "You've got to have a short memory. We've still got a good season going. Got to get back to work tomorrow."
The Gamecocks (20-8, 9-6 SEC) are not in danger of playing themselves out of a first-round bye of the SEC tournament -- they're locked into the No. 2 Eastern seed. If they can beat Georgia (12-18, 3-12) on Saturday while Alabama beats Tennessee, they can still be co-champions of the East.
Yet it's not comforting. USC has not lost three straight games all year and until Thursday, had not had consecutive bad performances.
"Our kids have battled all year long and played with tremendous pride," coach Darrin Horn said. "Tonight was a night that we were not good defensively and didn't rebound the ball the way we needed to and it carried over to the offensive end."
On Jan. 14, USC was blistered at LSU 85-68 in a game it was hardly in. On Jan. 17, the first half -- really, the first 31 minutes -- of an 82-79 loss at Tennessee featured the Gamecocks being manhandled inside by a massively gifted team.
That game was a turning point. Those last nine minutes, where USC almost doubled the Volunteers in scoring and turned a lost cause into a winnable game, proved the Gamecocks' spirit. They returned home 1-2 in the league but won six of their next seven, rising into the discussion for league champion and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
They are still considered as having a good chance for the NCAAs, but the past two games have made the footing shaky. Winning pushes the Gamecocks off the bubble and into the tournament, and that has been hard to come by lately.
At Vanderbilt on Feb. 28, USC was punched hard from the start and never recovered. Its interior defense was abused early and often and its offense couldn't match the Commodores' hot shooting.
That one was somewhat excused -- it was a road game, where the Gamecocks have not been strong all year; it was to a club that had struggled all season with injuries and other maladies but was recovering. Vandy went on to end regular-season champion LSU's 13-game SEC winning streak the game after, so that soothed some of the wounds.
But then Tennessee came to town on Thursday, and while USC hung with the Volunteers in the first half, it could hardly be called a great performance.
The Gamecocks' sizzling early shooting was equaled and surpassed because their defense again was MIA. As Horn pointed out, each team was scoring way too easily and when the Vols got the chance to force USC into its frenetic, run-the-floor, rampage-the-paint style, they did it.
A 46-46 game seconds into the final half foreshadowed an 8-0 UT run and the Volunteers didn't look back. USC was left wondering what had happened in the last two games that had turned a season destined for greatness into one that needs an immediate pick-me-up.
And it's going to have to come on an extremely short turnaround, on the road, against a team that won at Kentucky in its last game.
Horn said the loss stung, but wasn't near ready to say the Tennessee game had cost his team more than one L on the slate.
"I think it's disappointing, but I think deflating's a strong word," he said. "Did any of you guys think we'd be sitting in this spot when we started the year?"