Seventh loss in a row: Gamecocks rally late but fall just short against Arkansas

Addressing a group of former South Carolina men’s basketball players at Friday night’s alumni dinner, athletic director Ray Tanner hyped up first-year coach Lamont Paris and went so far as to promise that the Gamecocks would win the next day’s game.

That was a bold promise. Not even an athletic director’s blessing could pull the slumping Gamecocks out of their losing streak.

Playing in front of a plethora of USC alumni for “Legends Weekend,” the Gamecocks (8-15, 1-9 SEC) dropped their seventh game in a row on Saturday at Colonial Life Arena, falling to Arkansas 65-63.

Outside of an eye-popping road win at Kentucky on Jan. 10, USC has been playing from behind for the majority of SEC play. The Gamecocks put together a spirited effort in the second half against the Hogs, taking a one-point lead with four minutes remaining. Despite some flashes of progress in recent games, USC hasn’t found the extra gear needed to close out games in a deep conference.

USC had possession of the ball with less than 20 seconds remaining, but a Hayden Brown layup didn’t connect with time ticking down. After a USC foul and a made free throw on the other end by Arkansas, the Gamecocks had just 2.2 seconds to attempt a field goal, but a desperation shot by Josh Gray clanked off the backboard with time expiring to seal the loss.

Here’s what we learned from USC’s loss.

Gray takes another step forward

After Paris’ brief two-game experiment with a smaller starting lineup, 7-foot Josh Gray has settled back into the starting center role for the Gamecocks, and he has been playing the best basketball of his career.

Playing a physical brand of basketball in the post, Gray kept the Gamecocks afloat while they struggled through their early offensive woes. USC shot just 33% in the first half, but Gray had a team-high 12 points and seven rebounds, providing energy with his dunks and tough rebounding.

He picked up where he left off in the second half, finishing the game with a career-high 20 points and pulling down 12 rebounds — his second double-double of his career and the season.

Johnson rains 3-pointers in second half

A point guard transfer from Ohio State, junior Meechie Johnson has been a streaky shooter for the Gamecocks this season, but when he has the 3-ball working, it makes the Gamecocks much more dangerous.

Case in point: Johnson’s six 3-pointers all but carried USC to victory at Kentucky.

Though Johnson had a quiet first half on Saturday — missing all five of his field-goal attempts — he exploded in the second half, making five 3-pointers and helping fuel a 10-0 run late in the second half that gave USC a lead with four minutes left.

Johnson matched Gray with a team-high 20 points for the game.

Paris turns to defensive ‘crutch’

From his days coaching under Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, Paris has long prided himself on defense, and he promised to bring a stifling man-to-man style to Columbia.

But there have been times this year when the Gamecocks have lacked the intensity and communication to execute Paris’ complex system.

In those moments, Paris has said that he likes to turn to a 1-3-1 zone defense as a “crutch,” and that’s exactly what he did against Arkansas, mixing in a different look to disrupt the Hogs’ rhythm and create turnovers. Paris typically employs the look when the long 6-foot-8 freshman guard Zachary Davis is in the game, and the defense worked with great effect against an Arkansas team that started two lengthy guards of its own in 6-foot-7 Anthony Black and 6-foot-6 Ricky Council.

Next four USC MBB games

Feb. 7: at Missouri, 9 p.m. (SEC Network)

Feb. 11: at Ole Miss, 1 p.m. (SEC Network)

Feb. 14: vs. Vanderbilt, 6:30 p.m. (SEC Network)

Feb. 18: at LSU, 1 p.m. (SEC Network)