It was an absolutely gorgeous day in Columbia yesterday where it reached a record temperature of 81 degrees on January 12. As I got out of my car in a parking lot across from the Colonial Life Arena, I could see the fans were taking full advantage of the weather. Many of them were dressed in t-shirts and shorts. Having lived in New York for forty six years and been subjected to Northeast winters, an 80 degree day is a welcome change.
As I made my way to the arena, there were a lot of scalpers asking people if they needed tickets. Without fail, everyone they asked, including me, said "No thanks". Finally one of the scalpers blurted out to his friend "It's just football and baseball where they need tickets!" Given it's Frank Martin's first year coaching the team, the scalpers need a little patience.
The fans by me seemed to be in good spirits. It was probably the weather, but I think it also had to do with it being the first conference home game. With the exception of Clemson, the non conference home schedule was devoid of any big name teams. So the 9,119 in attendance were looking forward to facing a familiar SEC foe.
At the start of the game, it was evident that this was going to be another nip and tuck SEC affair. Bruce Ellington, the hero of the Outback Bowl, appropriately started the scoring with a jumper. This resulted in a loud "BRUUUUCE" cheer from the fans. But Shaquille Johnson buried a three pointer to put Auburn up 3-2.
A three pointer by Damien Leonard followed by an Ellington layup gave the Gamecocks a 20-14 lead. But Auburn scored seven straight points capped by a Noel Johnson three to put Auburn back up one, 21-20. Leonard responded with another three pointer to put South Carolina back out in front by two. Johnson countered with another three pointer and Auburn was back up one, 24-23.
An 8-2 spurt by the Gamecocks capped by another Leonard three put South Carolina up five, 31-26 with five minutes left. With LaShay Page's Gamecock career over due to an academic eligibility issue (Page was a graduate student at South Carolina, having transferred from Southern Miss for his fifth senior season), Leonard and Brian Richardson have been given larger roles for the Gamecocks. The sophomore Leonard responded on Saturday with his biggest game of the season scoring seventeen points.
Auburn would again rally, outscoring South Carolina 11-4. Frankie Sullivan's layup put the Tigers up 37-35. But the Gamecocks would score four straight points as Bruce Ellington's jumper put South Carolina up 39-37. A Sullivan free throw cut the lead to one, 39-38. The Gamecocks had a chance to go up more at the half but Brenton Williams left his layup just short on the rim. It would be one of those missed opportunities that would come back to haunt South Carolina at the end.
At the start of the second half, Sullivan continued to be the hot hand for the Tigers. He hit two consecutive three pointers to give Auburn their largest lead of the game, 46-42 with sixteen minutes left. The scoring pace would slow down considerably with South Carolina outscoring Auburn 7-2 over the next nearly three and a half minutes. A Lakeem Jackson jumper would put South Carolina back up one, 49-48.
The teams would trade baskets and free throws for the next three minutes. Eric Smith hit one of his two free throws to put South Carolina back up one, 56-55. An Ellington jumper and another Leonard three would put the Gamecocks up four, 61-57.
Again, Auburn responded. Without two of their top leading scorers, Chris Denson and Jordan Price, due to injuries, other players have stepped up for the Tigers. After Rob Chubb hit a layup, Brian Greene Jr buried a three pointer to give the Tigers back the lead 62-61.
Once again, the teams traded leads for the next two minutes. Smith's second three pointer in a row gave South Carolina the lead 69-67 with four and a half minutes left. But two free throws by Chubb and a jumper by Greene Jr. put Auburn back in front 71-69.
Auburn's Allen Payne basically intentionally fouled Jackson off a timeout. Jackson, who's horrifically bad free throw shooting is well known, had actually hit two earlier free throws much to the delight of the crowd. But with a chance to tie, Jackson reverted to his 28 percent free throw shooting self, missing both. Jackson would make up for it later by finding Ellington for an open jumper to tie the game at 71 with three minutes left.
The Gamecocks had several chances to tie or take the lead. But Ellington and Carrera missed jumpers. Then after an Auburn turnover, Smith missed an open three with the shot clock winding down. Sullivan missed a jumper but Chubb got the offensive rebound and was fouled by Carrera, who fouled out of the game.
Ellington, who was coming off a rough nine turnover game against Mississippi State, bounced back nicely with eighteen points, five assists, two steals and only had two turnovers. Leonard had nine rebounds to go with his seventeen points, six of the rebounds came on the offensive end. Smith added ten points on three three point field goals and Jackson added ten points and three assists. Carrera only played twenty four minutes and had six points, seven rebounds, five on the offensive end and five assists.
Sullivan led Auburn with seventeen points while Chubb had sixteen points and ten rebounds. Greene Jr came off the bench with fourteen points as he hit all six of his field goal attempts. The Tigers shot fifty eight percent from the field.
The statistics were very close. Both teams hit eight three pointers and South Carolina made two more field goals, twenty six, to Auburn's twenty four field goals. But again the difference was at the line. Auburn was 18 of 28, while South Carolina was 11 of 16.
Martin had to be pleased with his teams improved ball handling on Saturday. Wednesday night, they had only ten assists and twenty turnovers. On Saturday, they had twenty assists and fifteen turnovers. Still, it wasn't enough to turn back Auburn.
In a competitive SEC, the little things mount up. The missed free throws by Jackson, an open layup that falls short right before the half, a rushed three point attempt with time left on the clock, Carrera in foul trouble and playing only twenty four minutes and points off turnovers (Auburn 8, South Carolina 2). In the end, they cost the Gamecocks the game.
Still, in a seemingly down year for the SEC, the Gamecocks have time to right the ship. They just need to take care of the little things - more free throw opportunities, Carrera staying out of foul trouble and capitalizing on opportunities down the stretch.
I understand that fully. In my haste to tweet the final score and leave to beat the traffic, I left that free hat at my seat.
You have to take care of the little things.