COLUMBIA — Down by six with five minutes left, South Carolina found something that has been missing during a six-game losing streak - confidence.
The Gamecocks (13-13, 3-10 Southeastern Conference) held Mississippi (19-7, 8-5) without a point in the last five minutes, and Eric Smith’s 3-pointer with 25.1 seconds to go let South Carolina climb out of last place in the SEC with a 63-62 win over the Rebels.
“I finally saw the team that we had four weeks ago try and play again,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “I feel good for our kids because they have been in the grinder here for three weeks and league play is unforgiving.”
The Rebels missed their final seven shots in a devastating loss for their NCAA Tournament hopes. Ole Miss has lost five of its past seven games since starting the season 17-2.
“This certainly hurts us. We know that. Thank goodness the NCAA Tournament is not selected tomorrow. So we’ve got opportunities to try to improve,” Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said.
The Gamecocks held Marshall Henderson to 11 points, well below his SEC-leading average of 19.7 points a game. He shot just 4 of 17 from the field and made just three of his 11 3-point attempts.
“Sometimes we try to make things a little more complicated than they are,” said Kennedy, who missed an opportunity to become Ole Miss’ all-time winningest coach. “The SEC’s leading scorer can’t go 4-of-17 and you expect to win on the road.”
Martin told his team they needed to play with confidence if they wanted to win again. Things looked good, as the Gamecocks took their biggest lead of the game, 54-49, with 9:42 left. But the Rebels went on a 13-2 run to lead 62-56 with 5:04 remaining on a basket by Murphy Holloway. The senior from a suburb of Columbia, who transferred to South Carolina and then went back to Mississippi without playing a game, led all scorers with 19 points and had 13 rebounds.
During the six-game losing streak, Martin said his players have been mostly silent in late-game huddles. But Bruce Ellington spoke up and said they couldn’t let this one get away. Other players chimed in, and the Gamecocks clamped down on defense.
Reginald Buckner fouled out with 3:39 left for Ole Miss, and Lakeem Jackson hit one of two free throws. Brenton Williams hit a 3 with 2:09 left to cut the Rebels’ lead to two.
Henderson missed a 3-pointer with just under a minute to go and Williams saved an errant pass. Ellington missed a layup on the drive, but Jackson got the rebound and kicked it out to Smith, who buried the winning 3 with 25.1 left.
“I was open and I just tried to shoot it with confidence,” Smith said.
Henderson got a good look from behind the arc on Ole Miss’ next possession, but missed. Smith missed the front end of a 1-in-1 with 8.4 seconds left, but Mississippi didn’t get its last two shots to the rim. Jackson blocked Nick Williams’ layup with 0.9 seconds left and Henderson’s desperation 3-pointer was blocked by Laimonas Chatkevicius.
Michael Carrera led South Carolina with 13 points and 13 rebounds, while Smith added 12 points.
Mississippi is now in danger of falling out of the top four in the SEC, who all get byes to the quarterfinals of the conference tournament - a tournament the Rebels may now have to win to make their first NCAA Tournament in 11 years.
In what might be the most obvious sign of Mississippi’s predicament, Martin’s first words in his postgame news conference were to lobby for the team he just beat.
“I don’t want to hear anything about the SEC is weak and Ole Miss doesn’t belong in the NCAA Tournament because they lost on the road,” Martin said.
But Mississippi’s problem is a schedule that has it playing only one team with a winning SEC record in its final five games, making it difficult for a team that has no wins over teams currently in the top 25 to build a resume that catches the selection committee’s eyes.
“You can’t be oblivious to it if you have a television,’ Kennedy said of his team’s NCAA Tournament chances. “The reality is, the only thing we can control is the next one.”