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February 3, 2009

Gamecocks fall in a thriller

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - It couldn't be blamed on one thing. A lot of things caused it.

Whichever one was picked, it contributed to the same result - South Carolina lost.

Rampant foul trouble, a rare night turning over the ball more times than forcing turnovers and another painful evening from the free throw line sent the Gamecocks to a 97-93 loss at Florida on Tuesday, breaking a four-game winning streak. With first place in the SEC East on the line, thanks to Kentucky's loss to Mississippi State earlier in the day, USC (16-5, 5-3 SEC) fell a little too far behind and the Gators claimed the top spot.

A blistering rally, led by Devan Downey (who else?) and his game-high 33 points, got the Gamecocks within two points with 16 seconds left and evoked memories of USC's thrilling 70-69 win over Florida on Jan. 21. But the Gators (19-4, 6-2) wouldn't cooperate this time, Walter Hodge sinking two free throws for the final margin as Downey's last shot clanged off the rim, Florida recovering and running out the clock.

USC out-rebounded Florida 45-39, blocked seven shots and put four players in double figures, but they lost the ball 17 times (and only forced 10), threw away 12 potential points at the charity stripe and were whistled for 30 fouls, leading to 31 Florida points on free throws.

"I think it was a game where we didn't guard very well," USC coach Darrin Horn said. "On the road, the three things you have to do are defend, rebound and take care of the basketball. We rebounded well but we did not defend or take care of the basketball well."

"I did a poor job of setting the tone defensively," Downey said, shouldering all of the blame. "I take full responsibility. We win games with defense. Clearly my fault."

Downey was being way too hard on himself, but said what he felt he had to say. The missed free throws contributed to the loss, but weren't solely responsible. Losing the ball did the same, but wasn't the only problem.

Florida did what it does best - used its lengthy athleticism and speed for transition points and pounded away with center Alex Tyus (19 points) when the Gamecocks were saddled with heavy foul trouble on their big men. Getting to the line so often also helped, a point Horn made in the post-game.

"Nick Calathes is apparently awesome at drawing fouls, for a guy that doesn't drive by people," he said, referring to the Gators guard's 22 points, 13 from the free throw line. "He is just really, really good at that."

The discrepancy in fouls - at one point, USC was whistled for six fouls in 70 seconds after going almost seven minutes without one - was a sticking point. All of the Gamecocks' big men had to sit down early, and after they'd just begin to flow in the second half, found themselves in trouble again.

Mike Holmes, Sam Muldrow and Austin Steed each had two fouls by the 11:00 mark of the first half. In a 38-second span during the second half, all of them were whistled for their thirds, just after they'd started to get into the inside-out rhythm that helped USC to five SEC wins.

USC kept battling, though, behind Downey, Zam Fredrick and Dominique Archie, and after Fredrick swished a 3-pointer with 10:21 to play, the score was tied at 72.

But the Gamecocks couldn't keep it going.

Three straight front ends of one-and-ones missed and Downey picked up his fourth foul, sending him to the bench. Holmes broke the string by making one of two free throws, but that was only one point out of a possible eight in the last four possessions.

With Downey out of action, Florida shot ahead by nine, holding that margin until 57 seconds remained. USC kept fouling and was rewarded when Hodge missed two shots, which sprung Downey loose for the last 11 of his points. Still, when Hodge regrouped and made his last two shots, the Gamecocks were down four and too far gone to recover.

USC never gave up and finished the first half of the SEC season at 5-3. The Gamecocks will get some time to rest their weary bodies, with only one game (Saturday hosting Georgia) until Feb. 14.

But Downey spoke for the team when he walked out of the locker room, frustratedly pounding his fist into his palm and muttering about another one that got away. The little things combined became too big and regressed USC to 1-3 on the SEC road.

"We can't blame it on free throws, we can't blame it on 3s," Archie said. "We didn't play well defensively. We're the fastest team in the league, I think. Just the commitment and effort wasn't there."



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