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March 19, 2009Two days later, the question still loomed.
What happened to South Carolina's offense?
"Really, when you look back, what happened is after that great win over Kentucky, we got away from what gave us the opportunity to be a good basketball team," coach Darrin Horn said, gasping the words out after a 70-63 NIT loss to Davidson ended the Gamecocks' season. "We talked all year about we don't have a ton of margin for error because of lack of depth and some of the dropoff. We got away from the things that make us good in some of those games."
The Gamecocks hammered Kentucky in Columbia on Feb. 25, 77-59, to claim sole possession of first place in the SEC East. They won by 18 but led by almost 30 several times in the second half.
Anybody who wanted to shoot did and converted. It was one of the most dominating performances in school history.
And the beginning of the end.
USC's next five games featured one win and four losses. USC fell out of first place before tying Tennessee on the regular-season's last day, was blown away in the SEC tournament, left out of the NCAA tournament's field of 65 and resigned to the NIT.
Then Davidson came in, inhuman scorer Stephen Curry at the ready, and ended USC's season but good.
There were a lot of things that went wrong in those five games. Offensive consistency was numbers one through 10.
Devan Downey hit his average in every game but was missing a lot more shots than he made. Zam Fredrick was his usual self, scoring in double figures but taking high-risk, low-reward attempts. Mike Holmes, Sam Muldrow, Dominique Archie and Brandis Raley-Ross would look like all-conference players one night and back in high school the next.
The Gamecocks scored -- coming into the Davidson game, they still led the SEC with 78.7 points per game. But they only rose above that average once in the final five games, during a 96-83 loss at Vanderbilt.
The rest -- 70, 68, 68, 63. For a team that had avoided becoming one-dimensional offensively all year, opponents suddenly found it extremely easy to knock the Gamecocks out of their rhythm.
"That's learning to handle success, which is something that we haven't been through," Horn said.
The Gamecocks did a fantastic job for the majority of the season in avoiding the pitfall that sunk them last year. It was obvious Downey led the charge because no matter how well the opponent could guard him, there weren't any that could completely stop him.
Last season, Downey had to take over much too early in the year. When it became apparent the other four on the floor weren't going to be consistent, opponents could double up on Downey and hope the others wouldn't have great nights.
This season, Horn knew he had limited depth and also knew he had to get production out of his other players. That worked for 26 games.
Then came Vanderbilt, where the Commodores were smoking hot from the outset and USC couldn't counter. Then Tennessee, where the Volunteers' rampant athleticism abused the Gamecocks' defense.
A win at Georgia previewed the SEC tournament, where Mississippi State forced the Gamecocks into leaning once more on Downey. Holmes had to leave in the first half with a slight ankle tweak, and although he returned, the game was in its rhythm.
Downey had to adjust his shot, trying to get the ball through SEC Defensive Player of the Year Jarvis Varnado in the lane. That turned into the Davidson game, where Downey tried to drive the lane and dish at the last second instead of going for the two points.
"After watching film, they were very ball-conscious," Downey said. "I was just trying to find my teammates."
Sometimes he did, but he also had six turnovers. He responded in the second half by keeping the Gamecocks close, but once Curry decided the game was over, it was over. USC, doomed in part by a 25 percent-shooting first half, ended 21-10 with the sour knowledge that the season's plan lasted almost long enough.
The loss stung, but Horn was proud of the season. Taking a group predicted to finish fifth in the SEC East to the brink of an NCAA bid wasn't anything close to shameful.
"But when you look back at the whole, we're going to find a lot of positives from this season," he said. "We're going to find a couple of things we need to work on, not just basketball-wise, but in building a program."
Even as Fredrick, a senior who contributed two years to the cause, had to leave.
"You don't want to end your career like this," he said. "But you got to accept it. There's nothing we can do about it now."