The Gamecocks were right there, right within striking distance to knock off a top-25 Tennessee team and end a five-game skid.
Hassani Gravett hit a three-pointer on Tuesday night with a shade over 13 minutes left in the game, but by the 10-minute mark the Vols had their lead back up to 14 points, as South Carolina couldn’t finish another game late.
“We had that lull offensively in the second half, which then deflated us defensively; we went from being right there to down 14,” head coach Frank Martin said. “The theme of our basketball team is it comes down to one stop and the defensive assignment we laid out was not executed.”
Over the span of 3:03, Tennessee hit five of six shots, two of three from beyond the arc, as the Gamecocks sputtered with two missed treys and two turnovers.
By the end of a 13-2 run, Tennessee turned a three-point margin into a 14-point stronghold.
For the Gamecocks, it’s another loss in the books, the same way so many other losses have come this season. And now the team is facing a Saturday home game hosting No. 10 Auburn (22-3 overall, 10-2 in SEC) at 3:30 p.m. on the SEC Network.
In at least three other losses since Jan. 20 — starting with the first game against Tennessee this season — the Gamecocks led or were in position to take a lead late when they faltered down the stretch and ultimately lost.
It happened against Texas Tech, against Mississippi State and now twice against Tennessee. It can be frustrating, but there’s an easy solution for Frank Booker.
“Execute, execute everything coach is telling us,” Booker said. “He knows the game so well, he’s such a smart coach; if we don’t execute exactly what he tells us too, it’s going to be hard to win against good teams.”
For Martin, he’s seen this kind of play before, noting “listening’s been a weakness of this team the whole year.”
It reared its head again, twice over the last 30 seconds of Tuesday's game.
Up by just one, Tennessee needed a bucket with time ticking down to make it a three-point game and make South Carolina hit a shot from deep to send things to overtime.
South Carolina knew where the ball was going — to SEC Player of the Year candidate Grant Williams — and Frank Martin told them that, drawing up a defensive play to combat the sophomore scorer.
The problem was Chris Silva didn’t follow through on his assignment, Martin said, and it resulted in an easy basket for Williams, who finished with 22 points.
“The frustrating part for me is we didn’t have the discipline to execute the defensive call,” Martin said. “We knew where that was going. We spoke about it.”
Then, on the final possession to try and force an extra period, Martin wanted Wes Myers to drive toward the basket, get a ball hand-off and create separation for Justin Minaya from three.
Myers didn’t drive in the lane deep and it resulted in a heavily-contested shot that didn’t even brush the bottom of the rim.
“They did their jobs,” he said. “We didn’t do ours.”
But, amid all of this, there’s signs of hope for Martin and this team.
He said he liked his team’s fight, something they didn’t show in a 24-point loss to Florida. A few young contributors, Jason Cudd and Ibrahim Famouke-Doumbia, played big minutes and were effective.
Now it’s about building, as much as possible, on this loss and taking the positives from it to finish the season strong.
“If we can figure out a way to finish the season playing with the disciplines we played with today and just be a little cleaner with our minds and our decision-making process,” Martin said. "We’ll figure out a way to finish the season the right way.”