COLUMBIA - The ifs, ands and buts returned to South Carolina basketball, and so did another excruciating defeat.
What if point guard Aaron Lucas hadn't sat out the second half with a toe injury? What if the Gamecocks hadn't squandered a seven-point lead in the final 56 seconds of regulation, leading to overtime? What if they hadn't missed eight of 10 free-throw tries down the stretch?
South Carolina got no meaningful answers Tuesday, and the only one that really mattered lay on the scoreboard, which said Tennessee somehow escaped with a 68-67 victory before 8,579 at Carolina Coliseum.
"Bad luck just happens to some people, and hopefully it will change," said Gamecocks center Tony Kitchings, a South Aiken High graduate.
Time is running out. Saturday's trip to Mississippi State is their last game of the regular season, and the latest defeat likely means they'll have to make a championship run in the Southeastern Conference Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament.
"We've lost some games down the stretch when we just can't finish teams," said North Augusta's Antonio Grant, a senior who played his last home game at South Carolina.
Tennessee (20-9, 7-8 SEC) was down 61-54 with 56 seconds in regulation and indeed appeared finished, but South Carolina fans knew better. They'd seen their team squander a 10-point advantage in the last 3:28 and lose to Arkansas a week earlier, and they'd witnessed Mississippi devour a 12-point deficit in the second half to leave Columbia with a victory Feb. 17.
So it should have shocked no one when the Volunteers scored six points in 13 seconds to pull within 62-60. Nor should it have been a surprise to see Tennessee guard Terrence Woods - after the Gamecocks hit a free throw to push the lead to three - draining a 3-pointer from 27 feet as time expired to tie the game at 63 and force overtime.
"With how our luck has been lately, I knew it was going to go in," Kitchings said of Woods' bomb from the left wing.
What wasn't routine was how mightily the Gamecocks struggled from the free-throw line. South Carolina entered shooting 67 percent from there but managed just 52.9 percent Tuesday - 10-of-20 in the second half.
Plus, the Gamecocks were 2-of-10 on free throws during a crucial stretch from late in regulation to overtime. Kitchings and forward Rolando Howell combined to miss four straight in the first 1:13 of overtime, and in between Jon Higgins gave the Vols a 66-63 lead on a 3-pointer from far beyond the top of the key.
"Free-throw shooting did us in," said Gamecocks coach Eddie Fogler, whose team is 6-10 this season in games decided by eight points or fewer. "Missing those four in a row at the beginning of overtime really hurt."
Still, the Gamecocks had a chance. With the Vols up 68-67, South Carolina guard Michael Boynton inbounded the ball from the baseline with 6.3 seconds left. The pass was too high for Kitchings, who got his hand on the ball before it bounced to the floor and rolled down the left baseline.
Howell picked up the ball and launched a shot from inside the 3-point line but beyond his range. It bounded off the back of the rim and Higgins snared the rebound.
"It was a heck of a game from the get-go," said Vols coach Jerry Green. "We were lucky to make it to overtime."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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