ATLANTA — The programs fifth straight losing season was clinched, matching a streak only once before set, from 1918-23. South Carolina also recorded just the fifth 20-loss season in school history.
So why was there such a good feeling?
Records irrelevant to me right now, coach Frank Martin said after his second season ended on Friday, 59-44 to Tennessee in the SEC tournament quarterfinals. Im extremely proud of them. I got a great group of guys in there.
Players and Martin used words like, committed, ecstatic and hopeful. While there werent a lot of smiles in the locker room, especially by senior Brenton Williams, the players knew that while there might be a seven-month break until the balls get rolled out again, a step had been taken.
So many times in the past, the Gamecocks had had a postseason berth in sight with a strong non-conference season and an OK start in the SEC. So many times, they had collapsed.
This year, USC dug itself a large hole to make the postseason only a miraculous hope. But the Gamecocks didnt give in, winning four of their final six games and six of their final 11 to show significant improvement at the end of the year.
That they finished 14-20 did sting, but the hope is already evident for next year. USC only loses Williams (although he was the teams leading scorer). All-SEC freshman Sindarius Thornwell is a star in the making. The Gamecocks got great minutes late in the year from Duane Notice, Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius, Mindaugas Kacinas and Brian Steele. Ty Johnson will return, fully healthy, from the broken foot that cost him all but three SEC games.
With a revamped offense mid-year, being out-sized by almost every opponent, playing a significantly tougher schedule and not having a true point guard for the final 18 games, USC still matched last seasons overall win total and increased by one its SEC win total. The Gamecocks didnt quit.
That was the positive, and it far outweighed any negatives.
Theres a lot of hope, Thornwell said. We return everybody besides Brenton, and then we get Ty back. Well just try to carry on through the offseason and preseason and hopefully in November, well keep it going.
USC was fatigued from playing three games in three days, and it showed against the Volunteers (21-11). Tennessee, trying to improve its NCAA tournament resume, was fresh and USC wasnt.
The Gamecocks missed their first eight shots from the field and finished shooting 27.1 percent. Tennessee wasnt sharp but began to pull away with 12 minutes to play, its size and rebounding too much for USC to overcome. With Thornwell holding four fouls and no points (he finished with seven) and Williams held to just nine, the result was dictated with 10 minutes to play.
Shots were hitting front rim and the Gamecocks never could get that one extra inch that might have meant a make and a different game. Tennessee won its 14th straight against USC.
Yet, there was a generally happy feeling in the locker room. Johnson spoke of taking on a leadership role next year as a senior. Kacinas and Chatkevicius said theyd be staying in town this year to work on their games and get stronger after playing for Lithuanias national team last year. Even the freshmen that didnt play many minutes pledged theyd be back, stressing the want to be around a tight-knit team.
Martins only two losing seasons as a head coach have come in his first two seasons at USC. But he could care less. He knew he wasnt promised a rose garden when he signed on, and he knew that because of the circumstances, Year 3 would really be his Year 1.
When you finish the way we did, when you win the games we won, we won three in a row whens the last time that happened at South Carolina, three league games in a row?, Martin said (answer: 2009). We won games in this tournament, we beat Kentucky. Those kids now go into the offseason with confidence, that what were doing works, and that who they are is good, but with the understanding that were not there yet.
Ive got a core of young guys that are fully committed to bringing some respect to our basketball program. You dont finish the year the way we did if you dont have that kind of commitment from the kids in that locker room.
SOUTH CAROLINA (14-20)
Henry 1-2 0-0 2, Carrera 0-6 2-2 2, Kacinas 4-6 0-0 8, Thornwell 3-9 1-1 7, Williams 3-13 1-2 9, Shaw 0-2 0-0 0, Notice 2-11 3-4 8, Chatkevicius 2-9 1-1 5, McKie 0-0 0-0 0, Ringer 0-0 0-0 0, Steele 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 16-59 8-10 44.
Stokes 9-14 4-8 22, Maymon 2-4 2-5 6, Richardson 1-4 5-6 7, Barton 0-3 1-2 1, McRae 6-11 1-2 14, Moore 2-4 1-1 6, Thompson 1-2 1-1 3, Davis 0-0 0-0 0, Reese 0-1 0-0 0, Campbell 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-43 15-25 59.
Halftime_Tennessee 28-18. 3-Point Goals_South Carolina 4-16 (Williams 2-7, Steele 1-1, Notice 1-3, Kacinas 0-1, Thornwell 0-1, Carrera 0-1, Shaw 0-2), Tennessee 2-9 (Moore 1-1, McRae 1-3, Reese 0-1, Barton 0-2, Richardson 0-2). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_South Carolina 35 (Carrera 8), Tennessee 36 (Stokes 15). Assists_South Carolina 10 (Notice 5), Tennessee 10 (McRae 3). Total Fouls_South Carolina 21, Tennessee 15.