COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Bruce Ellington picked the perfect time for the first game-winner of his career.
South Carolina's two-sport star drove the lane and hit a layup with 1.4 seconds left as the Gamecocks picked up their first Southeastern Conference victory this season with a 56-54 win over Alabama on Wednesday night.
Ellington hadn't had a basket in the second half until he beat Levi Randolph and JaMychal Green to the hoop at the end. "I felt so good, that was my first game-winner," he said with a smile.
It was certainly not the first time Ellington has enjoyed a South Carolina victory. Ellington spent the fall on Steve Spurrier's 11-win football team, catching a touchdown pass in the satisfying 34-13 win over rival Clemson two months ago.
So which moment was sweeter, Bruce?
"Both of them were exciting because they were wins," he said. "It's about winning with your team."
South Carolina (9-10, 1-4 SEC) hadn't done much of that in the SEC. The Gamecocks finished last year with five straight league losses, including the SEC tournament, then opened this year 0-4. Still, coach Darrin Horn said his team had a couple of high-energy practices as it got ready for Alabama. "That's unheard of for a team that's winless and struggling," the fourth-year coach said.
That paid off at the end as the Gamecocks kept up the pressure despite shooting 32.4 percent (22 of 68) for the game and an abysmal 5 of 31 from behind the arc.
Alabama had one last chance as Green caught a long pass near the 3-point line. However, his turnaround jumper was short. The Crimson Tide (13-7, 2-4) lost their fourth straight game.
Malik Cooke led South Carolina with 18 points and Ellington and Damontre Harris had 12 apiece.
Green was held to six points, eight fewer than his team-leading average. Randolph led Alabama with 12 points.
The game looked like it belonged on the football field — both national champion Alabama and South Carolina finished in the top five nationally in defense — and both teams struggled to score down the stretch.
The Gamecocks, though, did just enough to keep in front. Harris had a tiebreaking jam with 3:46 to go for a 52-50 lead before Randolph's bucket re-tied it.
Anthony Gill put South Carolina ahead on his tip-in of Ellington's miss before Randolph again knotted the game at 54-all on Alabama's next trip down.
The Crimson Tide had a chance to go ahead after Gill missed from about 10 feet, but Cooke came up with a steal to set up the final dramatic moments.
Alabama fouled Ellington twice in the last seconds before the South Carolina sophomore took the inbounds pass and connected on the winning shot.
Crimson Tide coach Anthony Grant expected Ellington to get the ball at the end. "He drove the lane and he made a play," he said.
The bigger issue for the Alabama coach was his team's uninspired play. "It consistently feels like winning is not the priority," Grant said of his players. "We as a coaching staff have to reevaluate" what the team's doing.
Green was bothered in the second half with an ankle problem. He came out of the game with 15:42 to go, hopping to the bench with his left leg in the air after he was called for traveling. Green spent several minutes having his left ankle heavily taped on the bench before putting his sneaker back on and heading to Alabama's locker room. He returned a short time later and re-entered the game. Grant did not know if Green's ankle would be a problem going forward.
Grant did not make any players available to the media.
This was a matchup of two teams desperate for victory. The Crimson Tide had opened 7-0 in November and spent much of the season's first few weeks in the top 25 before sliding in December and January. Alabama had lost its last three games to Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, spoiling a 2-0 start in SEC play.
Things were even worse for South Carolina, which came in 0-4 in the SEC for the first time in 13 years and had struggled to put two halves together since starting league play. The Gamecocks outscored Kentucky in the second half of a 79-64 loss and hung with Vanderbilt for the final 20 minutes of a 67-57 defeat. They led Florida and Auburn at halftime of their last two games, falling apart in the second half in both losses.
Alabama appeared ready to run past the slow-starting Gamecocks early as Jacobs had a three-point play and Mitchell a powerful jam less than a minute in. Green blocked shots by Gill three straight times on one possession as the Crimson Tide controlled the inside.
Still, Alabama could not pull away. Randolph hit two 3-pointers in the final four minutes of the first half and Andrew Steele had a pair of foul shots with 17 seconds left that gave the Crimson Tide a 29-27 lead at the break.
Horn had his team practice coming out to start the second half, breaking the workouts to return to the locker room, talking for a few minutes and then coming back to simulate the start of the second half. Whatever the Gamecocks worked on worked out against Alabama.
''Really, this group is a resilient bunch," Horn said.