The 9,260 fans who came out on a cold, snowy night to Madison Square Garden Thursday got a bit of a surprise when BYU played nationally-ranked South Carolina right down to a blocked shot in the final second.

Unfortunately for the tall Cougars, they came out on the short end of a defensive battle, losing 52-49 to the 12th-ranked Gamecocks in the first round of the 39th annual Holiday Festival.The loss means the Cougars (6-6) will next play Rutgers, the host team, Saturday at 5 p.m. MST. South Carolina meets Maryland in the championship game.

Although it may have been expected, it was a tough loss for BYU, which played perhaps its finest overall game this season.

The Cougars committed only 12 turnovers, well below their season average, against a fine defensive team. And they played well defensively, holding a team that had averaged 51 percent from the field this year to just 41 percent.

But below average shooting - 43.8 percent from the field, 50 percent from the line on 4 of 8 - along with key miscues down the stretch, kept the Cougs from pulling the upset.

"We just played a good basketball team tonight," said BYU Coach Roger Reid. "I'm very proud of our guys. They battled hard. In the second half we had some shots fall and we played well defensively."

The Cougars fought back from a 29-22 halftime deficit and had a chance to win in the final seconds. And they may have pulled it out except for a call, or lack of one, with 18 seconds left.

BYU trailed 50-49 when Jared Miller was fouled after getting a rebound off a Gamecock miss. Miller missed the free throw and Shawn Bradley grabbed the rebound. However he was knocked out of bounds and the official, standing right there, awarded the ball to South Carolina. Which was correct, except there was probably a good reason why Bradley fell out of bounds.

BYU's Reid was livid at the time and still seething about it afterward.

"I'm a basketball coach and I know he just didn't fall down," said Reid. "Those are very big calls - sometimes they go for you and sometimes they go against you."

Here's Bradley's version of the play: "I grabbed the ball and tried to look for an open man and just got pushed out of bounds. A lot of people think a 7-6 person is uncoordinated, but I'm not that uncoordinated."

On the ensuing inbounds play, Jo Jo English got behind the BYU defense for a slam dunk to make it a 3-point game.

The Cougars had one last chance to tie the score after calling time with 6.4 seconds to go. In the huddle, Reid diagrammed a play for Mark Heslop, the team's best 3-point shooter to receive a pass from Nathan Call on the weak side.

But after the ball went in to Bradley, it went to Roberts straightaway behind the 3-point line. He got it over to Call, who noticed there was about one second left. He wisely shot a 3-pointer, but English was there to block it just after it left his hand.

"We knew they'd try a 3-pointer," said SC Coach George Felton. "And we didn't want to foul the 3-pointer shooter. I thought Jo Jo did a good job of contesting the shot."

Call said, "I knew we didn't have a lot of time to get it over to Mark. So I just turned and shot it, but he got a piece of the ball."

Call had one of his better games since returning from his mission last summer. He scored 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting and only had two turnovers in 30 minutes of action.

Bradley led BYU with 14 points, 8 reboundsand 7 blocked shots and impressed the New York fans.

After falling behind 29-22 at the half, the Cougars came out a little more aggressive in the sec-ond half and took a 31-30 lead on a 15-foot baseline jumper by Scott Moon.

An uncontested layup by Call gave the Cougars their largest lead at 41-37 midway thought the second half, before the Gamecocks scored eight straight points. A six-point run gave BYU its last lead at 49-47 with 1:45 left, but Joe Rhett's 3-point play put SC up for good.

On BYU's next possession, Bradley lost the ball in a crowd when he tried to dribble instead of shoot ("I had a couple of crucial mental breakdowns," he said.) The Cougars still got those two chances to win or tie, but couldn't convert on either.

GAME NOTES: With seven blocked shots, Bradley improved to 79 for the season. He only needs three more blocks to top Greg Kite's single-season record of 81 set in 1982-83 . . . Four of BYU's starters are from Utah. But South Carolina goes one better. All five starters are from South Carolina and four of the five are from Columbia, where the University is located . . . BYU's Steve Schreiner, a starter all last year and for 10 games this year, went scoreless and didn't even play the second half after subbing 18 minutes for Miller in the first half . . . Bradley suffered a gash on his chin in a first-half collision with English. He was taken to the St. Clair's Hospital after the game where doctors closed the wound with five stitches . . . BYU had some small pockets of fans, but South Carolina had a much bigger contingent of fans on hand . . . In the first game, Maryland outscored Rutgers 18-5 over the last five minutes to move into the title game. Walt Williams scored 30 points and pulled down 9 rebounds to lead Maryland, 5-3.