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April 30, 2012

Gamecocks rise into tie for first



It's a funny game, all right.

It was only six weeks ago that South Carolina was 0-3 in the SEC, and only five weeks ago that the Gamecocks had "improved" to 1-5. It tied for the worst league start in coach Ray Tanner's 16-year tenure at USC, and also tied the other worst start in program history, in 1992 when the Gamecocks were making their initial foray into the league.

Following the fifth loss, a 5-4 home setback to Florida, Tanner wasn't pleased but he wasn't giving up. He pointed out the history - USC started horribly in 1992 (1-9), but finished 13-11; and the 1-5 start in 2003 became a 19-11 final record and an appearance in the College World Series. No, it wasn't pleasant to be staring at the sides of a self-dug hole, but the hole wasn't impossibly deep.

"I don't feel too good, to be honest with you," Tanner said then. "We've had some spurts where we've been a pretty good club, but we haven't been able to put it all together. All you can do is keep grinding it out. It doesn't always go the way you want it to go."

These days, it's going exactly the way he wants it to go, and the way he thought it always could. While the jury's still out on where this season will end, it's at least challenging the other results of USC's rough SEC starts.

As Sunday ended, USC was back in a tie for first place in the SEC with nine games to play. At 14-7, the Gamecocks have won 11 straight league games (and gone 13-2 since the rough start) to place themselves right back in contention.

USC is tied with Kentucky and LSU for first, and while the Gamecocks are down a tiebreaker to the Wildcats, they still have to play the Tigers (and it's a series at Carolina Stadium). While USC travels to Arkansas this weekend, Kentucky hosts Florida in a series that could very well determine USC's fate.

If the Wildcats win that series, it likely won't matter what the Gamecocks do the rest of the way. They may tie Kentucky for the SEC regular-season championship, but the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament would still go to the Wildcats.

Of course, that may be secondary. The SEC tournament is often a warm-up for the top teams in it, an exhibition used to get some younger players some time and any players on the bubble for the postseason cut-down list another opportunity to prove themselves. While only one team gets the seed for the tournament, all tied teams atop the standings get titles - the SEC doesn't mind in the least having to present three or four trophies and credit three or four champions.

USC has never won back-to-back SEC championships, although it has twice won back-to-back SEC East championships (1999-2000, 2002-2003). The Gamecocks are challenging for it now, after seeing the Gators slip two games back and the Wildcats lose two games to former East cellar-dweller Vanderbilt.

The Gamecocks travel to Arkansas and Georgia, while LSU comes to Columbia. There may be a bit of scoreboard-watching as well as playing over the next three weeks, especially as school is ending and it's baseball-only for the duration.

The other teams bidding for the title may be scoreboard-watching, as well. They're probably wondering, after 11 straight wins, when USC is going to lose again.

If ever.

SEC tournament watch

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