It took Coastal Carolina and South Carolina 24 years to meet again on the hardcourt, and the reunion was worth the wait.
South Carolina scored the game’s final four points in the final minute to narrowly escape an upset at the hands of the Chanticleers with an 80-78 win Saturday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena.
A Jaylen Shaw runner near the baseline with 1:10 remaining put Coastal ahead 78-76 and Hassani Gravett hit one of two free throws to pull the Gamecocks within a point with 53 seconds to play.
The teams then traded three empty possessions, as the Gamecocks blocked a Zac Cuthbertson dunk attempt and each team turned the ball over – USC’s Justin Minaya by stepping out of bounds and CCU’s Demario Beck by dropping a pass out of bounds on a fast-break layup attempt.
Gravett provided the game-winning points with 6.5 seconds left with a three-point play on a driving layup.
Shaw had a good look at a pull-up 3-pointer from the top of the key for the win but it bounced softly off the rim and a one-handed tip attempt by Beck also rimmed out. A second tip attempt dropped but it came after the buzzer.
“This was a tremendous college basketball game,” Coastal head coach Cliff Ellis said. “… We had our chances. You have to give South Carolina the credit. They did what they needed to do. We did what we needed to do, we just came up short.
“It will be a tough bus ride back. We felt like we should have won.”
The game that was tight throughout, as neither team led by more than seven points, and no team led by more than five points over the final 26:45.
There were eight lead changes and eight ties, and Coastal held a lead for all but 1:10 of the final 12 minutes – a stretch of 1:04 when the score was tied and the final six seconds.
“Obviously we were fortunate to win that game, lucky to win that game,” Gamecocks head coach Frank Martin said. “We just gave up a wide-open three to their leading scorer, we’re lucky that didn’t go in.”
It was a great environment. The fans came out and really helped us out. It was a good win but we know we can play better. We’ll take this win as one of those ugly wins, but Coastal Carolina’s a good team and they played hard, we just made one basket more than they did.
USC senior guard Frank Booker, who had a team-high 19 points
USC, which reached the Final Four last season, improved to 8-2 while Coastal fell to 5-5. The Chants were coming off an 85-81 win at Hampton on Wednesday, when they outscored the Pirates 11-5 over the final 2:30 to snap a two-game losing streak after home losses to Wofford and Lamar.
“I feel we showed people what we can be and how we can be even better,” Shaw said. “We came here and played this team tough. They’re a hard-nosed team, they go hard, and we showed we can go just as hard. And I think we can be better, we can be even better.”
Though it required a late bucket, the Gamecocks essentially won the game at the free throw line. Coastal was whistled for 25 fouls compared to 13 for USC, and the foul discrepancy bore out at the free throw line as the Gamecocks attempted 31 foul shots compared to 13 for Coastal, and outscored the Chants by 12 points at the line.
“The one thing you want to do as a coach is get your team to the line more than the other team gets to the line, and they definitely got to the line more than we did,” Ellis said diplomatically.
Coastal fell into foul trouble early, amassing 10 fouls just 12 minutes into the game, including three each on center Josh Coleman and guard Tre Brown.
Coleman, who Ellis was relying on to guard talented 6-9 sophomore Chris Silva as part of double teams in the post, picked up his fourth foul jockeying for position with 1:20 left in the first half and fouled out just 1:24 into the second half.
Brown and Amidou Bamba also had three fouls each at halftime, when no Gamecock had more than two fouls. Ellis left Coleman on the floor to protect Beck and Cuthbertson, who are more versatile threats offensively and were more relied upon to guard Silva in Coleman’s absence.
“We knew the way it was going with Demario and Zac we had to have those guys in the game, we needed them later as opposed to sooner, and we wanted to make Josh’s physical presence be felt with Silva down low,” Ellis said.
It didn’t take USC long to expose Coastal inside following Coleman’s departure, as Silva powered in a layup for a three-point play moments later while saddling Beck with his third foul, though Silva had just five of his 15 points in the second half.
Beck led four Chants in double-figures scoring with 20 points and hit eight of his 10 shot attempts, including three of four 3-pointers, to improve to 15 of 21 over CCU’s past two games. “He found openings and he made the most of it,” Ellis said of Beck.
Ajay Sanders scored 14 points and was 4 of 5 on 3-pointers, Cuthbertson had 11 points, four rebounds and a team-high four assists from his forward position, and Shaw had 17 points in his return to Columbia.
He transferred from South Carolina in 2014 following his freshman year and is in his third season playing at CCU after sitting out a year. The return was nearly triumphant, as Shaw had the game-winning opportunity.
“I just saw a chance to win the game,” said Shaw, who added he was excited about the USC matchup since the end of last season. “I was wide open. I took the shot. My teammates and my coaches want me to take that shot every time. I’m wide open. I’ve got to shoot those.”
The game is the first of a three-game series in consecutive years, with CCU going back to Columbia next season and the Gamecocks visiting the HTC Center in the 2019-20 season.
I’m very appreciative to Frank for giving us this opportunity. He didn’t have to do it, he did it. It’s good for the state. It’s good for everybody to do this. People were treated to a great basketball game.
Coastal coach Cliff Ellis
Saturday’s meeting was just the third between the teams and first since the 1993-94 season. CCU used to be a branch of the South Carolina university system. Ellis expressed his appreciation Saturday for the opportunity Martin gave his team, and Martin expressed his appreciation for Ellis reaching out to him as a helpful colleague in coaching.
“[Ellis] has helped me since I’ve been in this state in an incredible way, and that’s why we played the game,” Martin said. “Cliff and I spoke about this three or four years ago, I told Cliff, ‘I can’t play you when we’re no good because I understand how good your teams are. I can’t. We’ve got to get better before I start playing you.’ We’re not very good right now, but we’re better, so it was time to do that.”
Coastal plays its next five games at home to close out December beginning Saturday against Montreat and including games against Wake Forest, College of Charleston and Sun Belt favorite Texas-Arlington.