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March 17, 2009And suddenly, it was over.
The first year of Darrin Horn's reign at South Carolina ended on Tuesday, 70-63 to Davidson in the first round of the NIT. The Gamecocks trailed the majority of the game, were icy from the field and in general, played without a sense of urgency.
In other words, about what one would expect from a team that up until a week ago, was considered a decent bet for the NCAA tournament.
"Obviously, this is not the way we wanted our game to go," croaked Horn, hoarse from a night of exhorting his team to a limit it couldn't reach.
USC ended 21-10, a 10-game winner in the SEC for the first time since 1997-98 and with a share of the SEC East's championship. The Gamecocks, despite playing with a thin bench and never fielding a complete roster until their last two games, defied odds all year and turned Colonial Life Arena into an energy-producing palace.
That same energy was there on Tuesday, albeit from a lot less people, and much of it came from Davidson's supporters. USC never quit trying, but a combination of its own horrid shooting with the hot statistics of Wildcats all-everything guard Stephen Curry and forward Andrew Lovedale sealed it.
Seniors Zam Fredrick and Branden Conrad shared an on-court hug after Fredrick fouled out late in the game. Conrad, inserted and then replaced so he could get his own ovation, went to the bench soon after.
For the first time since October, the Gamecocks don't have a game on the horizon.
"I had a lot of thoughts," said Fredrick, who ended with 10 points. "It was my last game as a college basketball player. I'm not going to be putting on the uniform again, not this one, at least. Just the atmosphere and the people that come and watch, family and friends, there was just a whole lot of emotions at one time. I don't really know what else to say."
Curry (32 points) and Lovedale (17) led the Wildcats' charge but USC also had a hand in beating itself. The Gamecocks only hit six field goals in the first half on 25 percent shooting, and although it improved to almost 47 percent in the second, Davidson (27-7) was already into its rhythm.
Devan Downey scored 18 points but also had six turnovers, seeming hesitant in the first half to finish after driving the lane. He'd pass to his teammates but nobody could convert the chances, and when Davidson began turning every Gamecock mistake into points, the game was firmly in the Wildcats' corner.
USC's last gasp was when Downey drove for a layup, making it 51-51 with 9:15 to go. Lovedale immediately answered and Fredrick turned the ball over, which led to Fredrick getting whistled for a foul and then a technical on Horn.
Curry hit both free throws, Davidson led by four and when Mike Holmes hit a 15-footer to cut the deficit to two, Lovedale answered. The Wildcats scored the next five points and were never seriously threatened again.
Fredrick and Conrad exited to their ovations and the seconds slowly ticked away. Davidson rebounded and held for the last 32 seconds.
The Gamecocks sat in their locker room, still dressed, most adopting the posture of condemned men and staring at the floor. It was the same scene as last week's SEC tournament loss to Mississippi State, which relegated them to the NIT, but with a lot more room and comfortable fixtures.
The feeling, though, was worse. After 31 games of living, breathing and eating basketball, Tuesday slammed the brakes on what was a wonderful season.
"It's been a true blessing to be a Gamecock here," Conrad said. "The people around my teammates, the staff just embraced me. It's been an incredible experience -- it's definitely a disappointing way to go out."
Horn thanked the fans for supporting his team during the season and credited his players for proving a lot of people wrong. From a predicted fifth-place finish in the SEC East to a tie for first and a sniff of the NCAA tournament, it was a program-building year.
With Downey expected to return for his senior season and a four-man recruiting class on the way, next year could be another step up. It hurt to not be able to continue constructing this one, but at least the future looks bright.
"We're learning how to handle some level of success," Horn said. "You can't do that until you go through it. I don't take that as a negative, I take that as something you have to learn to do. Now we've been through that and hopefully next year we can put ourselves in a similar position and handle it in a better way."
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