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January 14, 2013

Reflections on hoops: Being fearless



Frank Martin was hired - among other reasons - to transform the culture around South Carolina basketball, a program that has not been to the NCAA tournament since 2004.

Steve Spurrier accomplished it with the football team, as we've watched the Gamecocks blossom on the field with consecutive 11-win seasons and 31 wins in the past three years.

Even though progress is supposedly being made in Martin's 10 months guiding the USC program, losses like Saturday's 74-71 home setback to mediocre Auburn leave plenty of room for doubt.

The most disturbing aspect of the defeat, which occurred in front of an announced crowd of 9,117, was that it followed the same script as last week's 56-54 loss at woeful Mississippi State.

In both games, USC had victory within its grasp and let it slip away. In Starkville, the Gamecocks led by six points (50-44) with just over five minutes remaining in the game. However, five turnovers by USC helped the Bulldogs outscore the Gamecocks 12-4 down the stretch and deal USC a frustrating 56-54 loss in the conference opener.

Saturday, USC held a four-point lead (61-57) over Auburn with less than eight minutes remaining. But, instead of building on the lead in the comforts of Colonial Life Arena and emerging with a win, the Gamecocks were guilty once again of committing too many costly mistakes in the closing minutes.

What have the opening two conference losses taught us? USC's mental toughness down the stretch of close games leaves a lot to be desired.

Martin, however, has a different word to describe his team's shortcomings in the final minutes of games.

"You have to be fearless," Martin insisted. "You have to be fearless in your approach. That's something our guys are learning little by little."

The fallout from not being fearless? A bad, bad loss to another run-of-the-mill team that should be listed in the bottom 25 percent of the SEC if you ranked the teams one through 14.

"As we continue to fight, we have to learn how to win these kinds of games," Martin said. "When we do, it will be a whole lot of fun when we figure things out."

USC was outscored 17-10 by Auburn in the last 7:55 of the game. This time, the culprit was the non-existence of any kind of tough, in-your-face, grind-it-out defense, although most fans will undoubtedly focus on the botched inbounds play by USC in the final seconds that produced an off-balance and ill-fated 3-point attempt from the corner by Bruce Ellington.

"We let them catch the ball wherever they wanted," Martin said. "They have too many shooters. When they catch the ball so deep on the floor, it puts a lot of pressure on our post defense. We got away from our principles. Our ball pressure and perimeter defense have to be real good.

"When the guys on the perimeter don't fight to extend the offense higher on the floor so the post entry is a little longer, it makes it hard when you're a little smaller in the post. We have to be better. Plain and simple."

Auburn took 16 fewer shots, was out-rebounded by seven (USC had 17 offensive boards compared to Auburn's 15 defensive rebounds) and actually committed two more turnovers than the Gamecocks (17-15), but finished with just two less field goals. They erased the gap with excellent shooting.

The Tigers connected on 5-of-6 shots from the field and 5-of-7 free throws during the rally from the four-point deficit, and ended the game with an impressive 58.5 percent shooting percentage (24-of-41) from the floor.

When you allow a BCS opponent to shoot almost 60 percent from the field, winning becomes virtually impossible. Unless, of course, you match it somehow. USC couldn't (45.6 percent), and missed its final four shots from the field.

However, the lack of offensive production wasn't the problem on Saturday. Lack of defense, especially in the forecourt and outside the 3-point arc, was.

"We gave in as the game wore on," Martin said. "The pickup point on the ball started becoming deeper and deeper on the floor. That puts a lot more pressure on the defenders behind you. We're not big enough to play that way."

Martin cited this example from the game: USC was locked into a stretch where it was hitting shots on the offensive end. All it needed was a defensive stop to possibly take control of the game.

Auburn tossed the ball to guard Frankie Sullivan, one of its top players. Brian Richardson was guarding him on the perimeter. But, instead of contesting the shot, Richardson fell backwards trying to draw a charging call from the officials.

The tactic didn't work. The officials didn't blow the whistle as Sullivan rose up and hit a key shot with Richardson sprawled on the floor.

"We were rolling on offense, they were tired, so we needed a stop," Martin recalled. "They didn't even run offense. They cut (Sullivan) to the wing. He caught it, caught his breath, took one dribble, stuck his shoulder in Brian Richardson and he fell down. He jumped up and made a shot.

"That's a real good player making a winning play. But Brian can't fall down there, you can't. That's what we have to learn. That moment right there is not time to try to take a charge. You have to play strong and like a man right there."

Because of last week's losses in two very winnable games, USC faces an uphill battle to reach six conference wins, likely the minimum needed for a NIT berth.

Three of the next five games are on the road. Tests at LSU (Wednesday), Missouri (Jan. 22) and Florida (Jan. 30) alternate with home clashes against Vanderbilt (Saturday) and Arkansas (Jan. 26) over the final three weeks of the month.

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