COLUMBIA -- They tried to give this one away. They really did.
South Carolina kept propping opportunities on sparkling silver platters and waving them before Vanderbilt's hungry eyes. But each time the Commodores reached out to grab their parting gift, they ended up doing something stupid, something that would gall the likes of Martha Stewart and Sally Quinn.
Like bumping forehead first into the tray. Like stumbling headfirst into the pool. Like fumbling a court-length pass out of bounds before the certain game-winning layup could be tossed in.
Eventually, the Gamecocks tired of the act and outgrew their generosity phase. They decided to pluck this one back off the tray late Wednesday night and tuck it away into their back pocket.
"We really weren't very smart down the stretch," USC coach Eddie Fogler said after winning a 71-70 tester at Frank McGuire Arena. "I'm not being critical of (Melvin) Watson and (BJ) McKie. Without them we don't win games. But we were very fortunate at the end."
In recent weeks Fogler has repeatedly lamented his team's chemistry problems. He's called this group "out of sync" and in dire need of "role identification." There's no set rotation off the bench, there's no obvious front-court scoring option.
About the only sure thing on this year's USC team is that its nightly success can be traced to the backcourt combo of Watson and McKie. Wednesday's win was the 10th time in 11 games one or the other has led USC in scoring.
When they're on, the Gamecocks are dangerous. When they're struggling, well, things can get a mite ugly.
As was the case against the Commodores, with their bottomless bag of junk defenses. Triangle-and-two, box-and-one, hammer-and-sickle -- coach Jan Vanderbiltikopff (or something like that) threw 'em all at USC.
It worked. It nearly worked well enough to end the Gamecocks' now 16-game home winning streak against league competition.
"We're still searching," Fogler said. "I would like to get to more of a rotation, but we're not there yet. Who we play depends on who we're playing against."
These are not the words of a confident coach. And they certainly aren't the sort of smack Fogler was talking, oh, last February, when his club was rolling to a 24-8 finish and a first-ever SEC regular-season title.
Once, with the shot clock winding down Wednesday and USC clinging to a two-point lead, North Augusta's Antonio Grant got the ball in the right corner. He made a couple of modest dribbles, then handed it back to Watson. Grant got the ball back a few seconds later on the right wing. This time he didn't even bother to dribble. He simply handed the ball off to McKie and let him take his chances.
Last year, McKie gives a little shake-and-bake move and blows past his man for a layup. This time McKie went crashing into Ryan Stack at the foul line, spun around and was forced to pass back to Grant, whose off-balance 3-pointer clanged off the rim at the buzzer.
Of course, this goofy routine was nowhere near as brutal as Watson's floating shot attempt in the final five seconds, a shot he never should have taken. Vandy rebounded, threw the long outlet and would have stolen this game had normally sure-handed Drew Maddux been able to corral the pass.
All of which led to the musical question: Hey, Eddie, do you like your team?
Fogler pursed his lips, arched an eyebrow and gave a typically coy answer.
"That's a loaded question," he began. "I love my kids. I have great kids. (But) I'm not sure how I feel about this team yet in terms of playing good basketball. I'm not in love with my team, no."
So far, they've proven entirely too generous.
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