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March 7, 2011

COMMENTARY: Ellington Learns Hard Lesson

"I'm learning to fly,
But I ain't got wings,
Coming down,
Is the hardest thing."
---------- TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS

Bruce Ellington is quick, speedy, able to score in bunches and has a fearless spirit. All of those traits caught coach Darrin Horn's eye, which is why he heavily recruited Ellington to be his point guard of the future.

He's also a freshman, prone to freshman mistakes. The regular-season finale at Mississippi State on Saturday illustrated it.

Ellington scored a team-high 15 points, including five straight in a spurt that brought South Carolina charging back from a nine-point deficit. Trailing the Bulldogs by three points with less than 30 seconds to play, USC received a gift when MSU coach Rick Stansbury was slapped with a technical foul -- Malik Cooke swished two free throws to make it a one-point game and the Gamecocks had the ball with a chance to win.

After clawing back into the game by being patient, working the ball inside to Sam Muldrow or Cooke and hoping to finish with the Gamecocks' best chance of offense -- the offensive rebound -- USC stood to work the clock, take a last-second shot and perhaps leave Humphrey Coliseum with a win. Even if the shot didn't fall, the Gamecocks would be in position to have one, and they could say they went for the win on the road instead of playing it safe.

Ellington went for the win -- but far too soon.

With 23 seconds on the clock, Ellington hustled the ball across midcourt, spied the first defender and decided to pull up for the shot. His rushed 3-pointer was an airball, MSU rebounded and USC was forced to foul.

Kodi Augustus only made one free throw, but USC had only 10 seconds to go the length of the court and try to hit a tying deuce or a winning 3-pointer. The Gamecocks ran an inside-out play, passing to the weaving Ramon Galloway as he decoyed trying to drive from the right wing; Ellington over to the right corner as Galloway slammed on the brakes and passed.

Ellington had a look, but as Riley Benock lunged, he had to elevate his 3-point attempt. It also was an airball, short and to the left, as MSU survived.

It was good defense on the last shot. Benock made a play.

The first shot was the problem.

Trailing one point with 23 seconds to go, a rushed 3-pointer without passing first was not the best option. Horn said on the post-game radio that Ellington passed up screening the ball first, with the ball eventually expected to end up in the hands of Ellington or Muldrow.

The frustration was evident, and understandable. Ellington began the year scoring at will, bringing some comparisons to departed star Devan Downey, but he often seemed to be sacrificing fundamentals in favor of flash. The Gamecocks needed a consistent scorer, but they also needed a point guard trained to run the offense; Ellington has struggled trying to do both.

His shot began to flatten out two games before he suffered a deep leg bruise, which made things worse. Before Saturday, Ellington had gone four straight games without breaking into double figures, and although he did against the Bulldogs, his percentage (6-of-20, 30 percent) was in line with the rest of his late season.

A dogged competitor, Ellington played on the bad leg although it was evident he didn't have the same lift. And he was never hesitant to keep shooting, always thinking the next one would fall.

They began to fall on Saturday, especially when the Gamecocks needed them. But another freshman moment, throwing up a shot well away from a comfort zone in that kind of situation ... as Horn says, it's another moment that the Gamecocks will just have to deal with as the team continues to learn how to play high-level basketball.

Ellington was the scoring star in high school, used to taking (and making) every big shot. His skills as a point guard were good with room to get much, much better, the speed a gift that can't be coached and the areas where he was lacking able to be taught.

As Ellington grows, he'll have to realize that he can't be the guy every time. Saturday should have taught him that a little more harshly than preferable, but that's what happened.

The Gamecocks will need a point guard and a scorer as they head to Atlanta for the SEC tournament. It's make-or-break; at 14-15, USC has to win two games to simply be eligible for the NIT, but a 16-16 record is no guarantee of getting invited. The Gamecocks, should they get that far, would probably only feel stable if they somehow won two more games and walked out of the Georgia Dome as SEC champions.

Ellington will start again and has a chance to flush the bad memory right away. He also has a chance to remember what has worked for him this year, and what has not -- rushed shots with nobody underneath to rebound and trying to do too much being the chief two on that list.

Ellington is the player of the future, and a cornerstone to build a program on. As Horn said, everybody has to grow up; Ellington is one of the everybodys.

If he can do it by Thursday, USC can extend its season. For all intents and purposes, Ellington will soon be a sophomore.

But if he can be a learning freshman who wrecks the curve for a little while, he'll graduate with honors.

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