South Carolina’s Malik Cooke shoots the go-ahead basket over Georgia’s Marcus Thornton during their SEC game Wednesday in Columbia, S.C. Georgia, which had won two in a row, lost to last-place SEC cellar dweller South Carolina, 57-56. (The Associated Press)
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Malik Cooke knew he had to make a play and Damontre Harris knew he had to get a block. Both followed through perfectly and South Carolina got the win it badly needed.
Cooke scored 13 points, including the go-ahead basket with 19 seconds left and Harris blocked a layup attempt by Georgia’s Gerald Robinson Jr. to save the Gamecocks 57-56 victory Wednesday night — ending a five-game losing streak that stretched more than three weeks.
“We really were just tired of losing,” said Cooke, South Carolina’s only senior. “We just want to try and start a win streak.”
The Gamecocks (10-15, 2-9 Southeastern Conference) overcame a seven-point deficit in the second half, capped by a wild finish at the Colonial Life Arena.
Bruce Ellington had the chance to extend South Carolina’s lead after Harris’ big block, but missed his foul shot. That gave the Bulldogs one last chance. However, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was too strong on his 3-pointer and Cooke got his hands on the rebound.
There was a tie-up call and Georgia (12-13, 3-8) got 0.2 seconds to pull off a miracle. But the 6-foot-9 Harris got a piece of Connor Notle’s inbounds pass and the ball went harmlessly off the side of the backboard to end the game.
Harris ended with five blocks, to go along with his 9 points and eight rebounds.
“Coach (Darrin) Horn knows I’m pretty good at blocking shots,” Harris said.
Robinson led Georgia with 11 points.
Brenton Williams had 10 points and Harris finished with 9 points, eight rebounds and five blocks. None were bigger than his swat down of Robinson, who looked like he was on his way to putting Georgia back in front.
“I have to give South Carolina credit,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “I thought they played a little hungrier than we did tonight.”
The Bulldogs appeared to take control midway through the second half when Caldwell-Pope’s two foul shots gave them a 46-39 lead with 9:11 to go.
Cooke, though, got South Carolina’s rally started with a jumper and Ellington followed with a 3-pointer for his first basket of the game.
South Carolina tied it at 48-all on Cooke’s basket with 5:09 to go. The game was tied twice more before Robinson gave Georgia it’s final lead with three with 41.8 seconds left and set up the final frantic moments.
“It probably goes without saying that this, for the sake of our team, was an important game,” said Horn, the fourth-year coach under fire from fans for South Carolina’s last-place showing so far in the SEC.
Robinson was Georgia’s only player in double figures. Caldwell-Pope ended with 9 points, five fewer than his average, on 3-of-12 shooting, including 1 of 7 from three-point range.
Georgia had won two in a row over Arkansas and a ranked Mississippi State team in overtime last Saturday. The Bulldogs hoped to carry that momentum into the Colonial Life Arena against a Gamecock struggling for any positives.
Yet, Georgia couldn’t get much going early on. Leading scorer Caldwell-Pope was 1 of 4 for the half, missing all three of his attempts from behind the arc. The Bulldogs ended the period 9 of 29 (31 percent).
South Carolina, meanwhile, found a bit of life thanks to freshman guard Brenton Williams.
Georgia was up 21-20 on Caldwell-Pope’s jumper when Williams struck for two straight 3-pointers that brought the sparse crowd at the CLA to their feet.
South Carolina built a 28-23 lead right before the break — remember last year in this contest the Gamecocks trailed 28-9 — when Dustin Ware drained a fade away three as time ran out.
The Gamecocks leading scorer, Ellington, also had some shooting problems. He was 0 of 3 overall and missed his two three-point attempts. The sophomore guard also left the game for a time in the first half after spraining a toe on his right foot. He returned a short while later and played 15 minutes of the half.
South Carolina hit 14 of 15 foul shots, Ellington’s miss at the end the only shot off the mark.
Cooke played for Fox when both were at Nevada. Cooke transferred to the Gamecocks to be closer to his family in Charlotte, N.C. The two have a good relationship, Cooke said, and he didn’t think at all that he was beating his former coach. “I just wanted to get a win for South Carolina,” Cooke said. “That’s what was in my mind.”
GEORGIA TECH DROPPED BY WAKE, 59-50:
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Travis McKie looked like he had finally seen enough of Wake Forest’s losing streak.
McKie had 23 points and 11 rebounds, and sparked the second-half run that helped the Demon Deacons beat Georgia Tech 59-50 on Wednesday night.
McKie scored the first seven points of an 11-0 run, which put Wake Forest (12-14, 3-9 Atlantic Coast Conference) ahead for good and ultimately snapped a six-game losing streak.
“I just wanted to make the play,” McKie said. “I know we came out slow in the second half and I think our offense was a little slow at that point, so I think I just took it upon myself to be aggressive and make plays. And the ball went in the basket.”
McKie came in averaging around 16 points, so his output against the Yellow Jackets (9-16, 2-9) wasn’t an oddity. What made it different was when his key flurry came and how it sparked the Demon Deacons to the type of run they haven’t managed often this season.
Very little had gone right for the Demon Deacons since beating Virginia Tech 58-55 at home on Jan. 7. They had lost nine of 10 since, with the past six losses coming by an average margin of nearly 18 points. And in this one, they watched a 24-17 halftime lead vanish when the Yellow Jackets ran off 10 straight points out of the break.
But, trailing 41-38 with 7 minutes left, the Demon Deacons reversed their recent misery behind McKie.
First the 6-foot-7 sophomore hit a turnaround jumper that barely beat the shot clock. Then he took a pass from freshman Chase Fischer and knocked down the go-ahead 3-pointer, followed by a pair of free throws with 5:09 left that gave the Demon Deacons a 45-41 lead.
“I thought that he willed us in a lot of ways,” Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “When we needed some timely shots, he hit them.”
Tony Chennault and 7-footer Ty Walker followed McKie’s lead. Chennault (12 points, eight rebounds) followed with a steal and a layup, while Walker hit a jumper from beyond the foul line to beat the shot clock for his only basket to cap the spurt and make it 49-41 with 2:47 left.
Georgia Tech got no closer than four points in a matchup of the bottom two teams in the ACC standings.
“We were very aggressive at the 5-minute mark,” Walker said. “Coming out there and finishing strong like that, withstanding Georgia Tech’s run, it was definitely (welcome) for us.”
Wake Forest won despite shooting 33 percent, including 4 for 20 from 3-point range. In addition, top scorer C.J. Harris managed just eight points on 2-for-8 shooting to snap his run of 24 straight games with double-figure scoring totals. But the Demon Deacons finished with a 42-32 rebounding advantage and a 17-11 edge in second-chance points. They also hit all 14 free throws in the second half and finished 19-for-20 from the game.
The rebounding totals were particularly frustrating for first-year Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory.
“They killed us on the glass,” Gregory said. “For us to be good, we have to rebound well. And so, am I happy with our initial defense? Yeah, because it was pretty darn good. We forced tough shots. We forced three or four shot-clock violations. … (But) you have to finish it with defensive rebounds.”
Wake Forest juggled its starting lineup, giving Fischer his second start in a three-guard lineup that bumped Walker to the bench and had 6-8 forward Nikita Mescheriakov as its tallest player. The new-look Demon Deacons didn’t get off to a good start, missing nine of their first 10 shots with the Yellow Jackets blocking four in the first 4½ minutes.
Things didn’t get notably better, either. But they stayed with a zone defense that Gregory said “kind of lulled us to sleep a little bit” and led to a lethargic performance by Georgia Tech’s offense, which shot just 37 percent.
Glen Rice Jr. scored 12 points while Daniel Miller and Brandon Reed each added 11 for the Yellow Jackets, who have lost eight of nine and 12 of 14.
“It’s probably the fourth time this year in winning time — the last eight or nine minutes of a close game — the other team had the toughest player on the court that made big plays,” Gregory said of McKie. “We have yet to have that happen for us.”