No. 13 Florida goes for ninth straight vs. South Carolina

South Carolina folded badly last season and played its way out of an expected NCAA Tournament bid.

The current campaign is beginning to look a little bit too familiar to last season’s collapse.

The Gamecocks have lost three of their last four games to drop out of the Top 25 and will attempt to end their untimely slide when they visit No. 13 Florida in Tuesday’s SEC contest at Gainesville, Fla.

South Carolina (20-7, 10-4 SEC) won with defense while building its strong record but has suddenly lost the ability to slow opponents. The Gamecocks allowed an average of 78.4 points over the past five games to raise their season mark to 64.1.

But South Carolina’s offense has sputtered as well, especially when it shot just 59.1 percent from the free-throw line and went 1 of 9 from 3-point range in Saturday’s lethargic 71-62 loss to Vanderbilt.

Suddenly, the program that hasn’t played in the NCAA tourney since 2004 is losing its wiggle room when it comes to its resume.

“I think it’s us,” Gamecocks senior guard Sindarius Thornwell said. “We’re just not who we’ve been all year. We’re losing some close games. We’re not getting blown out. Those are mental mistakes when you lose close ones.”

Getting well against the Gators could be a tough task.

Red-hot Florida (22-5, 12-2) has won eight consecutive games and is tied for first place in the SEC with Kentucky.

The Gators have won by 20 or more points four times during the winning streak. They have won with prolific offense (114 points versus Auburn) and by escaping with exactly half of that total (57 against Mississippi State).

“We’re a diverse team,” junior point guard Chris Chiozza said after Saturday’s 57-52 win over the Bulldogs. “We can have a game where we score a hundred points and have one where we play defense and hold them to (52). … That’s what we hang our hat on.”

Florida’s depth was also on display in the win over Mississippi State. The Gators lost junior center John Egbunu for the season with a knee injury earlier in the week and sophomore Kevarrius Hayes stepped into the lineup and contributed nine points, a career-best 10 rebounds and four blocked shots.

Hayes scored the tiebreaking basket with 1:57 remaining and later protected the two-point lead by swatting away a shot by Mississippi State guard I.J. Ready with 30 seconds left.

“I tried not to make a big deal out of it,” Hayes said of replacing Egbunu. “The only thing that was really different for me — instead of playing behind John, he’s not with us now. I just tried to focus on playing smart, doing the best I can and staying out of foul trouble.”

Florida leading scorer Canyon Barry, a senior wing, injured an ankle against Mississippi State but is expected to play. Barry averages 13.2 points per game.

Thornwell leads South Carolina with a 21.1 average — which ranks second in the SEC. He has scored 20 or more points in four consecutive games and is averaging 30.0 during the stretch.

Thornwell scored 20 points when the Gamecocks posted a 57-53 victory over the Gators on Jan. 18. Florida missed all 17 3-point attempts to break an 850-game streak of at least one that dated to January 1992.