HONOLULU, Hawai'i -- A strong second half from its leading scorer wasn't enough to keep the Saint Mary's men's basketball team from falling for the first time this season as the Gaels dropped a 78-71 decision to South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.
Saint Mary's (9-1), which was one of the final 10 teams in the nation to hold an unblemished record, won't have to dwell on the result for long. The Gaels will play Monday at 8:30 (PST) against the loser of Sunday's late game between Boise State and host Hawai'i.
Brad Waldow scored 16 points in the second half to lead Saint Mary's with 20. Beau Levesque added 15 points and eight rebounds, Stephen Holt chipped in with 14 points and six assists and James Walker III had 13 points to round out the Gaels in double figures. Tyrone Johnson led South Carolina (3-5) with 16 points.
"Credit to South Carolina, they played well and hit some tough shots," said SMC head coach Randy Bennett. "They'd get a shot or a free throw (at crucial times). We couldn't get over the top. We were not very good defensively. But, they played well offensively. We gave up 58 percent from the field.
"(Tomorrow) is going to be a tough game either way. We said that before we even came out here. We are either playing Hawai'i at home or Boise on a neutral court. We know Boise is good and we know Hawai'i is good. This is a good tournament with a good field. That third day is going to be a tough day no matter what happens tomorrow.
"We've gotta get our stuff together and defend better tomorrow in order to have a chance."
Action remained close until the very end, and a bucket by Levesque with 2:57 left brought the Gaels within two as South Carolina held onto a tenuous 70-68 advantage.
That was the only field goal Saint Mary's would score until the 1:09 mark, but by then, South Carolina had added on with a 3-pointer by Brenton Williams and a baseline jumper by Laimon Chatkevicius. A basket down low by Waldow cut the Gamecocks lead to 75-71, but that was as close as Saint Mary's got as a long 3-pointer by Walker with about 30 seconds left missed badly and South Carolina held on from there.
After trailing by six at halftime, the stat sheet showed one glaring deficiency for the Gaels as they began their comeback out of the break. Waldow finished the first half with just four points on 0 for 3 from the floor, a testament to South Carolina's efforts to keep the ball out of the post.
The Gamecocks couldn't keep the junior from Shingle Springs down for long. He scored the first seven points of the second half, bringing Saint Mary's to within three points at 37-34. Eventually, the Gaels tied the game at 45 on a layup by Walker with 12:53 left, and the score stayed within a few points for the next few minutes. South Carolina got the lead to back to eight with 4:58 left, but it would never go higher than that as Saint Mary's cut it to as few as two several times.
Though the Gaels trailed going into halftime, they also carried a bit of momentum into the locker room after trailing South Carolina by as much as 12 with five minutes left in the half.
Early on, SMC had to deal with something it hasn't seen so far this season -- an ice cold start from the floor. A 2 for 12 start gave South Carolina a head start, and the Gamecocks responded as a free throw by Johnson capped a 9-0 run and made it 14-6 South Carolina with 10:22 left in the half.
Holt led the Gaels' first comeback, scoring six in a row to cap an 8-2 run and cut the gap to 16-14. South Carolina responded in kind, and a 3-pointer by Brenton Williams finished a 10-0 run and extended the lead to 26-14 with 4:33 left before the break.
Saint Mary's finished the half strong, led by two big 3-pointers by Walker. Tight defense by Jordan Giusti forced a South Carolina turnover, giving SMC the final possession of the half, and Holt bounced off a defender and hit a runner in the lane with time winding down to cut the Gamecocks lead to 33-27 heading into the locker room.